A living legacy of African-Americans who served in the Civil War

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uinion-private-fort-benton-missouri“I always remember the men who came before me. They couldn’t dream of the opportunities,” said retired Colonel Franklin J. Henderson as he stood in the Getty gallery at the Los Angeles Central Library a few Saturdays ago, surrounded by photographs of African-American soldiers from the Civil War. The colonel, who served as a paratrooper in the Korean War and rose through the ranks during his 30 years of Army service, had just given a talk about that subject elsewhere in the library to a packed house.

The 1989 Hollywood movie, “Glory,” tells the story of the 54th regiment from Massachusetts, comprised of black soldiers. But Colonel Henderson, who graduated from college in 1952, says that doesn’t fully account for the enormity of the service: 200,000 black men in the Army, 30,000 in the Navy, all who fought in scores of battles. There were a total of 166 regiments in what was called the “United States Colored Troops.”

“The United States is very good at bureaucracy,” the colonel joked. For a time the soldiers were paid less than the $13-a-month salary their white counterparts received, but that changed after an act of Congress, he said. As the war dragged on, all men were deemed necessary to fight the cause.

Colonel Franklin J. Henderson and a portrait of a Civil War serviceman

Slaves in the south even served during the war, too; if a white slave owner wanted to skirt his own service, he could send up some of his slaves to work for the Confederate cause. When the war ended in 1865, black service in the military continued thanks to the formation of the Buffalo Soldiers, some of whom were Civil War vets. Colonel Henderson has served as president of the national organization.

Anyone who thinks they might be a descendant of one of the African-American servicemen from the Civil War can research their heritage through the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC. Sesquicentennial events will be taking place in May. Meanwhile, the exhibit (on loan from the California African-American Museum) remains on display at the LA Public Library downtown through April 4th.

“This is a part of our history,” Colonel Henderson said. “We need to understand and review it. We’re a lot better than we were years ago, and I’m pleased I’ve seen some of the changes that have taken place.”