In Port Royal, re-enactors share history of Union’s first black regiment

rlurye@islandpacket.comSeptember 21, 2013 

By representing members of the 1st S.C. Volunteers, the re-enactors hoped to shed light on the seldom-told stories of the Union’s first black regiment.

ISLAND PACKET

With its rows of white tents and puffs of smoke Saturday morning, Heritage Naval Park had the look and feel of a Civil War encampment.

But two tents stood out at the Port Royal Farmers Market, both a little shabbier and smaller than the rest. Both were flanked by three men in Union Army blue. By representing members of the 1st S.C. Volunteers, the re-enactors hoped to shed light on the seldom-told stories of the Union’s first black regiment.

“Every single one of them knew what they were fighting for,” said Andy Holloway, curator of the 1st S.C. Volunteers exhibit at the Beaufort History Museum. “If anyone in the war had reasons, it was the African Americans who were fighting for their freedom.”

Saturday’s reenactment was sponsored by the museum to drum up interest in that exhibit, which opened this month and runs through December.

Members of the original regiment were freed by the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, though they had already spent months fighting for the cause as escaped slaves.

“We think the reason [President Lincoln] did it when he did was because these guys were already fighting and it was a little awkward that they were still ‘contraband,’ ” said museum board president Katherine Lang. “They had a big jubilee here after all that.”

A steady trickle of shoppers stopped by throughout the morning to hear from the period-clad men and women, including historian and 54th Massachusetts re-enactor Joseph McGill.

One visitor, 72-year-old Dennis Rusnak of Lady’s Island, shared his own knowledge of the Union: many soldiers shed their eagle-embossed breastplates because the Confederates used them as targets, he told McGill.

But one passerby was more interested in a table of history pamphlets and books than checking out the tin plates and cups on the sandy grass or asking McGill what it’s like to wear a wool coat in the middle of July.

“I want to buy this,” 7-year-old Trinity Evans told her mom, flipping through a copy of the “Civil War Remembered,” a National Park Service handbook. Mom Andrea Shorter-Evans, who came to the encampment from Parris Island for the living history lesson, smiled and shrugged.

“She’s actually a sponge,” she said of her daughter. “I think things like this are important because they open up another window to history she would not have had, and we both actually learned something new.”

Over the re-enactors’ 20 years of experience, they’ve seen more and more visitors like Trinity, said Joshua Washington, a former schoolteacher from Adams Run.

“That’s right,” Marlene Lemon of Charleston said with a laugh. She wore a blue period dress and black lace gloves. “They used to call you the Buffalo Soldiers.”

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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