By this week 150 years ago, the Civil War was over, the Union preserved and slavery effectively abolished. But there was one more formality needed to officially mark the end of the war: a Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, to welcome the victorious troops home.
On May 23 and May 24, 1865, two clear-blue spring days in Washington, a parade of 150,000 Union soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past crowds of ordinary citizens and reviewing stands with the nation’s most distinguished officials, including the new president, Andrew Johnson, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. “The sight was simply magnificent,” recalled Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose raggedy Western army marched on the second day. Mile after mile, people swarmed the streets to get a view of those Walt Whitman described in a letter to his mother as “real war-worn soldiers, that have been marching & fighting for years…mostly all good-looking hardy young men…all sunburnt….”
Greeting the soldiers were Washington schoolchildren, who sang popular songs like “When This Cruel War Is Over” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and banners stretched across the avenue with slogans like “UNION AND FREEDOM FOREVER.”
Excluded from the triumphant event, however, were the almost 200,000 black soldiers who had fought on the Union side, all of whom had been conveniently kept away from Washington. The only blacks who marched were former slaves paraded as comic relief. The sight of one man propped on a mule, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “created much laughter, in which the President and others joined heartily.” In the same letter to his mother, Walt Whitman described “great battalions of blacks, with axes & shovels & pick axes, (real southern darkies, black as tar).”
The United States Colored Troops (USCT), the name for the group that had been officially established within the regular army in 1863 and ultimately comprised at least 10 percent of the Union army, were nowhere to be seen. “By some process it was so arranged that none should be here,” the Inquirer correspondent observed, adding: “They can afford to wait. Their time will yet come.”
A century and a half later, their time has arrived.
This weekend, the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum in Washington will host a commemorative Grand Review Victory Parade, following the route of 1865 and passing by a faithful reproduction of the original reviewing stand, which will be set up in Freedom Plaza, near the White House. “We are going to correct that great wrong in history,” says museum director Frank Smith, a former member of the DC City Council who founded the museum in 1999. “African American troops are going to march with their comrades as they should have done in 1865.”