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This Brand New Civil War Monument Celebrates Black Soldiers

NSobert E. Lee no longer rides high above Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Dozens of statues of other Confederate heroes poured down across the South as the nation engaged in a long-overdue reckoning with the legacy of the Civil War. But on a recent cool Saturday morning, a thousand people gathered to witness a very different kind of ceremony on the grounds of the Cameron Museum of Art in Wilmington, NC.

They didn’t come to see the overthrow of an old Civil War monument. They came to watch the inauguration of a new monument that included 11 bronze statues — nine marching soldiers, one holding a flag, and a boy beating a drum. It is a new Civil War monument. But this is no ordinary homage to fallen Union heroes. Completely opposite. The life-size figures are African-American and more, they depict members of the Fifth Regiment of Black American Soldiers who led the assault during the Battle of the Road. Forks at this very spot on the afternoon of February 20, 1865. Two days later, nearly committing suicide in the Confederacy, the Union troops finally prevailed, then marched the last miles into the center. of Wilmington, where they were greeted by cheering residents, black and white. The demise of the Confederacy’s only remaining lifeline to the outside world was the final dagger of the war: 46 days later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Stephen Hayes, the Durham-based artist who created the sculpture, which he calls “Boundless,” is delighted to be part of a process of historical reckoning — and the possibility of reconciliation — finally took place a century and a half after the end of American slavery.

“Artists can ask questions and connect with people,” he told me the day before his work was released to the public. “I asked myself, what would the conversation be like between my sculpture and the Confederate memorials? What will they say to each other? “

More than half of the 2,000 Confederate casualties in the battles for Wilmington were members of the United States Army of Colored Troops, known as USCT, but so far they have not been recognized. Credit for this historic oversight goes largely to the staff of Wilmington’s Cameron Museum of Art, including its director, Anne Brennan, and deputy director, Heather Wilson, and local historian Chris Fonvielle, who wrote a book about the Forgotten Battle of the Fork.

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Alan Cradick / Handout / Cameron Museum of Art

“We were the only art museum that curated the Civil War site,” Wilson, 45, a native of North Carolina, told me. “About 13 years ago, we started talking about how wonderful it would be to commission an African American artist to commemorate the service of African American soldiers here. This story is important to African-American history, and we wanted to bridge the gap between the art museum and the Civil War site. This was before people started to take down Confederate monuments. ”

Museum staff reached out to the NC Arts Council and with other museums, seeking recommendations from artists who might be a good fit for the challenge. The name at the top of every list is Stephen Hayes.

One day while teaching a drawing class, Hayes received an email from Wilson, informing him of the new project and the museum’s aid mission. They started talking, Hayes submitted sketches, and eventually a $50,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and other sources of funding was secured — $400,000 in total. Initially, Hayes said, his idea was to carve out a pair of soldiers’ boots, but that idea turned into a group of 11 life-sized, life-sized figures, marching on the ground. . “My passion lies in creating work that changes the story,” Hayes told the local Daily Port City. “I want to change the way people see someone like me.”

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Handout / Cameron Museum of Art

Wilson added that Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Color Regiment, stationed at Boston Common, is a model – although it was decided to remove the white officer on horseback hovered over the black-legged soldiers under his command. “We wanted this sculpture to be active and powerful, focusing on African American soldiers,” she said. “We want this to be on the ground, accessible. We want African-American citizens to look at these numbers and say, “That person looks like me.”

Hayes, 38, grew up in Durham, NC, where he still lives and teaches, and he’s well-versed in Wilmington’s dark racial history. In the late 19th century, Wilmington was a rare success story in the post-reconstruction South, where an inclusive government of black and white officials, both elected and appointed, ran a city. prosperous, racially integrated, and largely peaceful. White supremacists didn’t have it. They rigged the election of 1898, toppled the elected government, installed hand-picked surrogates, then shot down more than 60 African-Americans and kicked thousands more out of town. town.

Soon after, the city erected two statues to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. They stood downtown through the summer of 2020, when they were removed as part of the city’s efforts to reconcile race during the Black Lives Matter protest over the police killing of George Floyd. The need for reconciliation became apparent that summer when three white Wilmington police officers were fired after their transparently racist conversation was accidentally recorded.

“We’re going to go out and start slaughtering the damn monsters,” Officer Michael Piner said in the video. “Wipe them off the damn map.” That didn’t happen. One thing that has been wiped off the map of Wilmington, however, is the name of its largest park. Until the summer of Piner’s diatribe, the park was named after Hugh MacRae, one of the white supremacists who led the coup in 1898. It is now known as Longleaf Park.

“There’s a lot going on here,” says Hayes of the city’s history and current situation. “We still have a long way to go.”

But he hopes “Boundless” is a step in the right direction. One of the sculpture’s compelling strategies is that it actually takes its subjects off the pedestal, where Robert E. Lee once rode, and places their feet firmly in the sand where the blood was spilled.

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Alan Cradick / Handout / Cameron Museum of Art

“When they put all the heroes of the Confederacy on one pedestal, they were trying to create a hierarchy,” Hayes told me. “I’m trying to create something that ignites the spark in people. It’s important to me that people can step up and experience it. I want people to walk around the statues. I wanted to create a connection between the viewer and the soldiers. I want people to look these men in the eye.”

These bronze men have a fascinating origin story of their own. After researching Wilmington’s role in the Civil War, Hayes decided he wanted to cast the descendants of the Black Army of the United States. Calls were sent to the African-American community and USCT re-licensing groups. Enthusiastic response. A total of 18 people volunteered as models. Of the 11 selected, 7 are descendants of the US Army of Color. The past came to life as Hayes spread strips of wet plaster over the faces of men, made bronze castings, and produced, as Hayes and Wilson had hoped, unmistakable echoes of determination and the bravery of the Blacks fighting for both the Confederacy and their individual liberties.

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The monument consists of three rows of three soldiers marching behind a flag bearer and a drumming boy. The three soldiers at the back are split in half lengthwise, creating a large flat surface on the back of the monument. There, the names of 1,820 Black soldiers who fought at Forks Road will be engraved. Say their names.

Turn Terror Into Indignation

Hayes knew that “Boundless” flipped the popular Confederate narrative of the Civil War. By honoring the bravery of once invisible Black soldiers, “Boundless” makes the point that Civil War is not a contest between brave white gentlemen on horseback — Gen. Robert E. Lee aboard the Traveler, or Confederate Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading his Black army to destruction at the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Many former slaves of the Black Confederacy escaped and joined the army, then on foot and in hand-to-hand combat to end a system that once held them captive. “Boundless” is an overdue break from revisionism, and Hayes hopes, a start: “I hope this starts a conversation and opens eyes to what happened here. here, the way these men are treated, the way they become colored troops.”

For Wilson, the launch was an “emotional and emotional” experience, the culmination of 13 years of work. “In the South, we were all taught a skewed version of Civil War history,” she said. “We have to acknowledge both what happened and the ways in which truth is consciously extinguished. Bringing these little-known stories to light can help us heal, and it can even help us build a brighter future. ”

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