MUC Bookstore presentation to recognize fallen African-American heroes from Civil War

Sarah Cato, vice president of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society, will speak at the MUC Bookstore about African American soldiers’ pivotal role in the Civil War.

Descendent George Abington stands next to a memorial grave of a Civil War veteran with a Presidential Citation signed by President Obama. Photo courtesy of Cato.

Her presentation, sponsored by the Black Studies program, is titled “56th United States Colored Troops (USCT), a Civil War Story”.

According to Cato, she thinks that SIUE students should learn about their story, in particular, African-American students who are unware of their ancestors’ role in the Civil War.

“The role of African Americans has been forgotten. African Americans are placed again and again in the role of the victim [such as] the Underground Railroad,” Cato said. “They need to know that we are not victims today [in our situation]. We had a role in our situation [liberation] then, and we can play a role in our own liberation today.”

Cato said she is very excited and looking forward to the event on Tuesday, April 7, from 12:30-2:00 p.m. where she will present a slide show and historical photographs.

“I would welcome those interested to come and look forward to seeing them,” Cato said.

Until 1863, the Union troops refused to take in African-American soldiers and there were few in the Union Navy.

That year, African Americans were allowed to join the military, and almost 200,000 fought for the Union.

For the 56th USCT, they came from Missouri.  A large number of them had been enslaved. Some of them were self-emancipated in which they freed themselves from bondage by escaping.

“It was not an easy process and they [the slave-owning power structure] did not want it to be an easy process,” Cato said.

“Prior to being emancipated, a slave was not considered to be a human being but livestock like a horse or chicken or cattle,” Cato said. “Some of the white people did not want to get rid of their property. They didn’t feel it a moral imperative to free their slaves.”

Cato added that there is a theory called fortunate fall that said that the Africans were fortunate to be brought into slavery and into civilization to be rescued from the savagery of Africa.

The black troops were originally recruited, given a date to appear and a place (military location) to be sworn in or “mustered in” at Benton Barracks. At Grand and National Bridge in Missouri, they underwent basic training before they were posted to Arkansas.

Originally the name of the unit was the 3rd Arkansas Volunteer Infantry (African Descent). The state of Missouri did not want to have any black troops bearing its name. Within that year, all of the troops of the 3rd Arkansas and many of the black union troops were federalized, or made units of the federal army.

“It was not very long until federal troops took over them,” Cato said. “The (Union) federal government wanted the black troops to fight for them. I think it was already in the works to happen.”

According to the Cato, with the influx of manpower, the African American troops probably saved the war. The federal government was actually running low on troops.

“With these Africans Americans they were allowed to fight and knew what they were fighting for. They were fighting for their families and African Americans across the world. They changed the course of the Civil War,” Cato said. “They did their duty.”

They also helped to build a school in Arkansas using their labors and their money. They built Southland College, an American Baptist school.

“There were a lot of people from the north coming to help with the school for emancipated slaves,” Cato said. “Located in Helena (Ark.), it became one of the predecessors of the University of Arkansas school system.”

After the Civil War, the 56th USCT traveled by boat from Helena to Fort Leavenworth, KS. Many had died of illnesses during that journey up the Mississippi River where 173 passed away due to cholera. They never made it to Kansas, but died in St. Louis.

Cato said it was her belief that everybody was buried individually. Today the military takes the DNA of every soldier.

“When they opened up these graves, they just scooped up everything. I don’t think they made the effort to put a marker with everybody’s name on it. That to me would have been the respectful thing to do,” Cato said.

Cato referred to the year 1939 when a mass grave was created from removing remains from Quarantine Island to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.

“Apparently it was quite a big thing in the charge of the War Department: a petition to remove the remains of Quarantine Island and put them at Jefferson Barracks,” Cato said.

The mass grave was marked with a marble Obelisk made by survivors in the middle of markers in 1866. There were wooden markers believed to have rot away, too.

“They just stacked [the bodies] up like woods, but they were really bones. They were pretty horrifying pictures actually,” Cato said.

Cato said her organization began to work on a way to respectfully honor these troops. They unveiled grave markers and dedicated them August 2014. All 173 fallen veterans each have a marker with a Granite base and bronze tablet.

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