An Interview with the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops

An Interview with the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops

The 23rd Regiment was the first African American unit to fight against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. They met on the battlefield on May 15, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Today’s living history organization, named for the 23rd, is headquartered in the Spotsylvania area and works in conjunction with the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum.

The 23rd USCT group's goal is to interpret the regiment's history while educating the public about the contributions made by the 23rd USCT and other African Americans during the Civil War. They have witnessed a picture of the 23rd painted onto the Spotsylvania County history mural and seen signage added to the Spotsylvania County African American Heritage Trail. They have marched in numerous commemorative events in Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, including reenactments of two of the more famous battles featuring the USCT—the Battle of the Crater and the Battle of New Market Heights.

Steward T. Henderson, President of the 23rd USCT, will be sharing the little-known story of African American Civil War soldiers with kids at CRRL's Fabulous Friday: Journey to Freedom classes this month. Hashmel C. Turner, Jr., Chaplain and Vice-President of the 23rd USCT, will put kids through drill exercises and marching practice.

CRRL Librarian Jody Lewandowski spoke with both men about their participation in the group:

CRRL: Why did you become involved in the 23rd Regiment USCT?

STH: I am a co-founder of the 23rd USCT. As a park ranger at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I knew the history of the 23rd USCT. John Cummings, the other co-founder, and I discussed forming the 23rd, to represent these men during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Plus, I have always loved Civil War history since I was six years old.  

HCT: I want to help tell the untold story of the African American Civil War soldier since it was not taught in my school. So I started studying and got involved to learn more.

CRRL: Describe the training and education you completed to be a member.

STH: I completed several courses in Civil War history, and, at one time, I had over 700 books on related history.  At the park, I had some of the most accomplished Civil War historians train and educate me. Also, I use the extensive library at the park which includes letters and diaries of soldiers. I had to learn how to drill, march, and shoot a musket from other reenactors. I spent many of my vacations visiting Civil War battlefields, learning about the battles and seeing the grounds the soldiers fought on.

HCT: I’ve read and studied books and films as well as attending reenactment events. We practice drills for marching in parades. I regularly participate in living history events where we learn from each other.

CRRL: Looking back, has your involvement benefited you in unexpected ways?  

STH: My involvement has enabled me to fulfill my dream of being a reenactor and participating in Civil War battle reenactments. I have learned about how the soldiers lived and fought so I can accurately portray the soldiers I represent. When I do battlefield tours and History at Sunset programs for the park, I can speak with the experience of someone who has accomplished some of the same duties as the soldiers. Furthermore, my involvement has given me the good fortune to participate in over 100 events, talking about the United States Colored Troops, at schools, churches, and Civil War groups.  

HCT: I was honored to join the 23rd USCT marching in the 2013 Inaugural Parade when President Barack Obama was sworn into office. Also it was exciting to participate in the making of the movie, The Spy Within, which is based on true events during the Civil War. The movie was presented at the Central Rappahannock Library as well as being shown daily at the African American Civil War Museum.

CRRL: Of what accomplishments are you most proud?  

STH: On the 150th anniversary of the 23rd's skirmish with the Army of Northern Virginia, we had a full day of celebration, which included the reopening of the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center with an exhibit about the 23rd USCT, the unveiling of a Virginia state marker about the 23rd USCT, a living history event on the Chancellorsville Battlefield (filmed and reported on by Voice of America), and a procession to and ceremony on the site of the battle.   

We have made the name of the 23rd known and respected on the battlefields of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, as well as Civil War sites in Washington, DC. We have accomplished our mission, but there is more to do.

CRRL: How can interested people get involved?

STH: Contact us and join our group or the various USCT groups around the country. They can look up the USCT Living History Association, the umbrella group of the USCT reenactors and living historians, as well as the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC.

HCT: Come out to reenactment events and talk to the reenactors. Groups are always recruiting. Look up our Facebook page to see where we will be next.