Powell Praises Black Civil War Monument
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 1996 The African-American Civil War Memorial is desperately needed to honor thousands of former slaves who helped the Union Army and Navy win the war, but whose contributions were ignored for more than 130 years. So said retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at memorial dedication ceremonies Sept. 13.
He also said the more than 185,000 names being inscribed on a series of walls are part of a proud legacy of people who had none of the opportunities young people have today.
"Young people must understand and never violate the trust given them by those who sacrificed so many years ago," Powell said.
The dedication was part of a five-day tribute to African-American Civil War veterans. Organizers held an ecumenical service at the Lincoln Memorial featuring prayers reflecting the life and times of Civil War soldiers and songs sung by the "colored soldiers." A special sunrise tribute was held at Arlington National Cemetery amphitheater in recognition of more than 185,000 black troops and their white officers who served the Union.
The Army band and the Army and Navy color guards, and historical re-enactment groups specializing in African-American Civil War and Indian Wars units also participated. More than 2,000 uniformed re-enactors, military bands and college and high school marching bands paraded in salute to African-American Civil War veterans. The black troops were not allowed to march in the 1865 victory parade.
Powell joined District of Columbia officials, National Park Service representatives and descendants of black veterans at the ceremony. The African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation, Inc., is spearheading the effort to build the two-part, $2.5 million memorial. It will have a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of black Civil War soldiers and the families they left behind.
The monument, to be completed next year will be erected at 10th and U Streets in northwest Washington. A $5 million family heritage and visitor's center is being built nearby that will feature historical photographs highlighting the contributions of African Americans to American history.
Serving in the military shows African Americans were "willing to die for this country -- die for the dream upon which this country was founded," Powell noted. "Whether it was in Colonial times, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, black men were always there ready to serve."
But, Powell added, the great challenge came in the Civil War. "Confederate Gen. Howell Cobb from Georgia heard that Confederate President Jefferson Davis might be enlisting black men to serve in the Confederacy. The general wrote a letter to Davis and said, 'Don't do it!'
"Use the Negroes for the purposes of cooking, digging, chopping and such. But don't arm them. Don't give them weapons. Don't make soldiers of Negroes.
Powell quoted Cobb as saying, "The day you make soldiers of Negroes is the beginning of the end of our revolution. If slaves would make good soldiers, then the whole theory of slavery must be wrong. If blacks can be well-led, well-trained and go into battle and show the same courage as whites, then the whole theory of slavery is dead. The Confederacy must be alive."
At the same time, Powell said, the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass knew this as well. So he fought to make sure the Union enlisted Negroes in the cause of freedom.
"Men of Color, to Arms!" Douglass' words screamed across newspaper pages in a stirring editorial. He wrote: "For once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.' Let him get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, bullets in his pocket. Make him a soldier of the nation. Let him serve. Let him sacrifice. Let him shed his blood with his white brother. Do all that, and then there is no power on Earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States of America."
More than 185,000 blacks responded, and almost 40,000 were killed or wounded. But they helped preserve the Union and end slavery, Powell noted.
"There was no parade for those black soldiers, not withstanding their sacrifice," he said. "It took another 100 years for the civil rights revolution to come along and remove the legal vestiges of second-class citizenship."
Powell said the struggle isn't over: "We know we've made great progress, and it's especially fitting that it's within the military that we have seen the greatest progress. It's within the military that we see the model for the kind of America we want to see in all of our institutions throughout this country.
"When I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I had paintings of black Civil War and Buffalo Soldiers on the walls in my Pentagon office. They were a little bit of affirmative action. No one had those paintings up before!" Powell drew loud applause for these remarks.
"When foreign visitors came into my office, I wanted them to see those paintings and be curious," he said. "I wanted them to know how far we've come as a nation and what a great nation this is that can make such progress. But in order to know how important that progress is, you have to know how far we've come."
The paintings were also a reminder of whose shoulders he stood on to reach the highest position in the armed forces, the former chairman noted. "Every day I sat at my desk and worried about matters of war and peace, I could look up and see those black predecessors of mine -- men who might have been chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their time if ... permitted," he said.
"As I looked at them, I wanted to make sure I had a daily reminder in my life of how far we'd come," Powell said. "I would never forget that I didn't get into that office simply on the basis of my own performance, but on the basis of the sacrifice of those African-American heroes who went before me.
"This memorial links us to our past," Powell emphasized. "It recovers our history for all to see. A terrible gap will be filled in the lives of families whose ancestor's names will be inscribed on this monument. The monument that will rise here will be a reminder that we have a history. With our blood, we earned our birth right. And we will not rest until, we, too, enjoy the God-given inalienable rights of live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we deserve."