With controversies over Civil War and Confederate monuments and statues continuing in the news, I thought it timely to reflect on my experience researching some of the heroes, events and places in Missouri that inspired my upcoming historical novel, Honor Among Outcasts: DarkHorse Trilogy, Book 2.
A particularly moving and historically important site is the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, a historically black college founded by the veterans of the 62nd and 65th U. S. Colored Infantry in 1866 to educate blacks after the Civil War.
Just off Missouri Highway 63 in Jefferson City, the state capitol, a visit to the campus of lovely modern university buildings, peopled by a vibrant student body, takes you suddenly and jarringly into a troubled, yet hopeful, time of immense challenges to a people recently freed from generations of subjugation and abasement.
Arriving late-morning, I first stopped at the school’s large ROTC facility seeking directions to the plaza, as students in workout clothing were engaged in strenuous exercise in strict formation, ignoring the summer heat, preparing to serve the nation that the school’s founders so nobly gave their last full measure of devotion to preserve.
Starting up the steps toward the plaza, I found myself passing two isolated bronze-cast Union Colored Infantry soldiers trudging toward the memorial, weary from battle, carrying their backpacks and rifles, their faces and bodies reflecting the hardship and danger they’d experienced. It was an eerie feeling.
Continuing, I glanced up and my heartbeat accelerated when I spotted the frieze on the south side of the pedestal depicting a line of marching black Union infantry. Atop the pedestal were four unarmed, uniformed black soldiers: the two standing in front offering books, while another stands behind them. In a dramatic twist, the fourth soldier on the pedestal is kneeling down to lift the lead soldier in the frieze up onto the pedestal. Their hands and arms are locked tightly together: one soldier helping to lift another up to freedom, citizenship and learning! This moving depiction put a lump in my throat; it told the story better than thousands of word could ever hope to.
Blacks Banned from Education
Prior to emancipation on Jan. 1, 1863, blacks in Missouri and elsewhere had been barred by law from learning to read and write. Of course, some free blacks were well-educated. And there was some surreptitious learning by bondsmen and -women, a dangerous business for Missouri’s 150,000 slaves, most of whom toiled near the Missouri River that cuts the state roughly in half. The war changed all that.
Over 100,000 black servicemen fought bravely for the United States during the war, hoping to free their people and preserve the Union. Of course, their primary motivation was personal freedom, which military service granted, a farsighted policy of President Abraham Lincoln. But another major incentive to enlist was the chance to learn to read and write, offered by the abolitionists of the American Missionary Association who taught blacks at their regimental schools — a story not widely told.
Yes, black soldiers fought for their freedom and for the country where they were born; but we should remember that they were fighting for the right of every person to fulfill his or her potential as human beings.
By the time the war ended (technically), the nation’s impoverished black population, following generations of debasing enslavement, was hungering for knowledge, a significant addendum to our great national epic. The newly freed people believed that only through learning could they avoid being re-enslaved and that learning would also open the doors to prosperity and full citizenship for themselves and for their children.
Unequal Pay for Blacks
Adding to their sacrifice, black infantrymen were paid less than whites. When the Union began accepting black soldiers, the military only paid black soldiers $7 a month, while white soldiers received $13. There was an attempted strike by black troops in the East to protest this inequality, but the leading black sergeant was hung, and it took an act of Congress in 1864 to grant equal pay to blacks, who faced such challenges stoically and bravely. You can find full details at the National Archives.
Tribute to Educator James Milton Turner
Another significant memorial I found was in Boonville, which promotes several nearby historical Civil War sites, mainly skirmishes and raids. But I was captivated by a memorial in Morgan Street Park just off Main Street, which among the visages of the town’s early luminaries, including George Caleb Bingham, stands a bust of black educator James Milton Turner.
Born into slavery in St. Louis County in 1839, James Milton Turner founded a remarkable 52 schools for black citizens after the Civil War. In their desire to be educated, even as desperate as their economic situation was, post-war blacks founded and taught at their own schools — and taxed themselves to support them. (One former Confederate, none too pleased by the development, complained black schools were “springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.”) The bust of James Milton Turner is modest; yet his legacy is profound, far-reaching.
Yes, the Civil War was perilous for blacks, but the peace was no less threatening, nor less deadly. I was heartened to find such respectful tributes to those black citizens of Central Missouri who suffered and sacrificed for a more perfect Union.
Actual Events Depicted in Honor Among Outcasts
* Drawing inspiration from Missouri’s 62nd and 65th U. S. Colored Infantry, Honor Among Outcasts features the fictional Missouri State Militia 9th Colored Cavalry, the DarkHorse Regiment, outcasts all, who proudly and honorably serve their country. The DarkHorse troops also get entangled in the black-white pay discrepancy, but in an ironic and humorous plot twist, which I won’t divulge here.
* Quantrill’s 1863 Massacre of Lawrence (Kansas), where 400 Confederate guerrillas/bushwhackers actually burned the town and slaughtered its male citizens.
* The Union’s General Order No. 11. In Honor Among Outcasts, four black members of the fictional 9th MSMCC, attempting to protect a pro-secession family from being murdered by corrupt Union troops, risk death by defying orders. The infamous Order 11 actually wiped out four entire counties to clear them of pro-Confederate citizens and supplies against any potential Southern invasion.
* And in 2018, fiction will again follow fact in the final novel of my DarkHorse Trilogy, Something in Madness, when former slave and Union veteran Big Josh Tyler (inspired by the likes of James Milton Turner) returns to Mississippi during Reconstruction determined to form a school for blacks, but is confronted by the Southern Black Codes and deadly “Gun Clubs.”