Living history in all its glory at Battery Wagner anniversary
For 25-year veteran re-enactor Fred Polston, history keeps repeating itself.
Friday: The city of Charleston will present the movie, “Glory,” whose final scenes depict the July 1863 battle on Morris Island, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Marion Square.
Saturday: The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust presents a forum, Toward “A New Birth of Freedom”: Sesquicentennial Reflections on Charleston, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and Battle for Morris Island.
The forum runs from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Dock Street Theatre and is free and open to the public. Speakers include these historians and authors: Joseph T. Glatthaar, Thavolia Glymph, Robert N. Rosen and Stephen R. Wise. College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers will lead a discussion with the audience.
Sunday: The National Park Service’s living history programs runs 10 a.m. to noon.
At 7 p.m., the city of Charleston will dedicate a monument to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at White Point Garden on the Battery. The ceremony will include Civil War music, Union and Confederate re-enactors, and remarks by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
Also, The Charleston Museum is continuing its Civil War Sesquicentennial observation with its exhibit, “Our Duty was Quite Arduous”: The Union Encampment on Little Folly Island, 1863-1865. It features items the museum’s archaeologists recovered from the beach there after erosion caused by Hurricane Hugo.
“It’s my fifth time fighting this war,” he said. “We still haven’t gotten it right yet.”
Polston and other members of the 10th South Carolina Regiment participated in living history programs Thursday with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment re-enactors for the Civil War’s 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner at Fort Moultrie.
Guarding the entrance to the fort, fellow re-enactor John Colson said he got into re-enactment after the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley was raised more than 11 years ago.
The most common question he gets during the re-enactments is about the comfort of the jeans-cloth uniforms, made of a mixture of cotton and wool, which didn’t make Thursday’s 90-degree day any cooler.
“The South didn’t have a lot of wool, so they used cotton,” Colson said.
Fort Moultrie rangers Dennis Birr and Gary Alexander dispensed the charges for a rifle demonstration as the men of the 54th Massachusetts dressed their lines.
On July 18, 1863, Morris Island faced a Union bombardment of nearly 9,000 heavy artillery rounds.
“That bombardment would escalate until, at the peak of the bombardment, an artillery shell was firing every 2 seconds,” ranger Rick Hatcher said as the regiments prepared to fire.
Hatcher called Union Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s use of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment a serious decision.
Black troops at the time, Hatcher said, presented a dilemma — not using the troops could be seen as an affront to abolitionists, while taking them into battle and returning with heavy casualties might be seen as sacrificing them for white soldiers’ protection.
“Using black troops in battle this early in the war was a double-edged sword,” Hatcher said.
Following the rifle demonstration, re-enactors gathered under a tent to share their connections and expertise with the Civil War. Drummer boy Kharson McKay, 11, from Austin, Texas, participated in the ceremony to honor his eighth-generation ancestor, 54th Massachusetts Regiment drummer boy David Miles Moore.
“I’m very interested in history, and I felt I had to honor him,” Kharson said.
Fellow re-enactors from the 54th answered questions from the audience, particularly about the treatment of those troops. While white troops made $13 a month, the black troops made $10 a month.
“To show you how the black soldiers felt being paid less than white soldiers, the governor of Massachusetts offered to pay the difference,” re-enactor Melvin Turner said.
The troops turned down the offer, asking for equal treatment for all soldiers in the Union army, regardless of race.
Turner, who lives in Philadelphia and is a history buff, began re-enacting shortly after the filming of “Glory,” a movie about the 54th, with its final scene being the assault on Battery Wagner.
“I went up to Washington, D.C., and saw six to eight black men walking around in Civil War uniforms. And they told me they had just finished filming,” Turner said.
A handful of re-enactors from “Glory” were in attendance, while some were having their first foray in blue.
Donavin White, a social studies teacher from Harlem, joined the Massachusetts regiment for the first time this year.
“I enjoy history (and) politics, and I wanted to be a part of it,” White said.
White, who is originally from Charleston, said he continuously makes attempts to reach his students with outside-the-box lessons, including bringing a former general and staff sergeant to class to discuss World War II.
“If it’s not in color or video, it’s hard to keep their attention,” White said.
To show the ongoing nature of history to his class, White continues to look for the contemporary connections to the past.
“If you can relate current events to past events, it helps (the kids learn).” White said.
Reach Nick Watson at 937-4810.