Exhibit Shines A Light on Black Troops In Civil War
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

They are the artifacts of a long-ago war and of an unsung demographic: a pension application of a slave who joined the Confederate Army in 1864; the diamond-shaped metal identification badge of a South Carolina slave wounded in a battle near Richmond; and the Civil War musket of a Loudoun County native who escaped from his Prince William County owner and joined the Union Army in 1863.

These are some of the items in a traveling exhibit, "Many Thousands Go: African Americans and the Civil War," scheduled to be on display at the Manassas Museum from Tuesday to April 1. Roxana Adams, the museum’s curator, said the exhibit performs a critical function in the analysis and drafting of Civil War history because it pays attention to an aspect of the conflict that is seldom considered.

"This exhibit takes the viewer through a part of the Civil War that is not very well known," Adams said. "A lot of people may be familiar with the movie ‘Glory,’ [the 1989 film about the war’s first all-black volunteer company], but as far as I can tell, there’s been no real continuing story when the Civil War is told or reenacted that includes, consistently, the African American experience."

The "Many Thousands Go" exhibit originated at the Pamplin Historical Park museum near Petersburg, Va. When Adams learned of it more than a year ago, she was immediately intrigued. Funding came from the Manassas Museum Associates, the City of Manassas and Dominion Virginia Power. She said it would complement the Manassas Museum’s permanent exhibit, "Place of Passages," which chronicles the Manassas area’s history before, during and after the Civil War.

Adams said she was proud to insert a local angle into the exhibit: the musket of James Montgomery Peters, a Loudoun native, who escaped from his Prince William owner James Carter, when he heard that he might be sold. Peters signed up with the Union Army on June 17, 1863, at Mason’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River, the museum says.

Peters was later wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks and served until Sept. 29, 1865. After his tenure in the army, he moved to Prince William to farm and start a family.

Adams was able to feature the musket, thanks to Peters’s descendants. "I’m not a firearms expert," she said, laughing slightly, before reeling off some of her research. "All I can tell you is that there’s a little hammer that makes an explosion and that pushes the bullet out. It was an 1842 model musket and a third of Union soldiers were equipped with these weapons until [later]."

A special event is scheduled for Feb. 8 to mark the exhibit’s opening at the museum: National Geographic writer Thomas B. Allen will speak at 2 p.m. about his children’s book "Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent."

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