Soldiers Embrace Living History Roles
Crew members of the ceremonial unit, Battery B, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Light Artillery,fire a Napoleon Cannon during the Hopewell Juneteenth National Freedom Day Celebration held June 27 at Petersburg National Battlefield. Members of Battery B are volunteers who pay homage to the original unit formed in 1864 as a part of the U.S. Colored Troops.

FORT LEE, Va. (July 2, 2009) – A group of Fort Lee Soldiers has made a commitment to honor the past.

The 14 Soldiers, most assigned to the 148th Quartermaster Company, 240th QM Battalion, 49th QM Group, have volunteered to take on roles as living historians in the portrayal of Civil War cannon crew members assigned to Battery B, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Light Artillery.

Master Sgt. Marvin Edwards, the group’s noncommissioned officer in charge, said he and the others have taken on their roles with a measure of reverence for the sacrifices made by African American Soldiers during the war.

“I get the opportunity to pay homage to African American Soldiers who came before me,” said the Richmond native. “I get an opportunity to learn about the roles of black men during the Civil War, something I had no idea about, and I get to fire a 12-pound Napoleon Cannon.”

The rebirth of Battery B was the result of cooperative efforts between the adjacent Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Lee. The national park stages a number of Civil War reenactments and makes available other educational activities for visitors during the busy spring-summer seasons. It has plenty of participants to play the parts of Union and Confederate Soldiers but wasn’t able to muster enough interest for African American participation in the war, according to Park Ranger and retired Soldier Randy Watson.

Students from nearby Virginia State University were considered as an option, but most of them depart for the summer. PNB officials were further deterred by the amount of time it would take to get students to perform cohesively. Soldiers were the most viable option.

“Because they are military and are Army, they’re used to working together as a team,” said Watson, noting that Soldiers responded enthusiastically to the volunteer request. “It all came together in really record time for us.”

It also came together with the strings of history attached. Watson said Battery B is likely the only unit of its kind in the country.

“To my knowledge, as a result of my research, I believe this to be the only formal USCT light artillery detachment in the country at this time,” he said.

There were 10 batteries of the U.S. Colored Light Artillery activated during the war. CLA units were part of the U.S. Colored Troops formed to augment Union forces. There were approximately 178,000 USCTs – free black men, freed slaves and contraband – who served as members of artillery, infantry and cavalry units.

Battery B was formed in 1864 at Fort Monroe and participated in the Siege of Petersburg the same year. It was deactivated in 1866. The unit saw little action because leaders had no confidence in their abilities. They should, however, be remembered for what they were willing to do, said Watson.

The ceremonial version of Battery B is about a month old. In their roles, members interact with spectators; dress in period uniforms and fire reproduction Napoleon Cannons in community events under the supervision of Watson.

Their role as living historians is differentiated from that of re-enactors in that they focus on roles rather than a particular battle. That was something that appealed to Staff Sgt. Stephen Jackson, a history enthusiast who likes the idea of role immersion.

“I’ve learned from books and school,” said the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Combined Arms Support Command Soldier. “But this is the first time I’ve actually gone through the process of acting it out, to see what it feels like.”

Sgt. Shanna Willis of the 148th wanted to get the feel of being part of such a unit despite the fact no women were on the CLA rosters.

“I was willing to do whatever they wanted,” she said smiling. “If they wanted to stick a mustache on me, that was fine, too.”

The members of Battery B participated in their first event Saturday during Hopewell’s Juneteenth Celebration.

“They performed beautifully,” said Watson. “They did a real good job.”

Battery B member Spc. Marilyn Hale said they are committed to the job of bringing light to the roles of African Americans in the war.

“I want people to know the history of the black Soldier who participated in the war,” she said, “and I think that everybody should do some research to find out more.”

Battery B is slated to perform at Fort Lee’s Fourth on the Fort event on Saturday.