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Old 03-09-2020, 07:05 AM
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Post Where Civil War Soldiers Will March Again

Where Civil War Soldiers Will March Again
By: John Hanc - The New York Times - 03-09-20

Despite some opposition, the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, N.C., is as committed to the Civil War as it is to exhibiting Modernist prints and paintings.

Photo link:
Restored Confederate earthworks, including the trenches at the site of the 1865 Battle of Forks Road, in Wilmington, N.C., with the Cameron Art Museum in the background.Credit...Peter Hoffman for The New York Times

This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Standing on the remnants of earthworks erected by Confederate forces in the waning months of the Civil War, the historian Chris Fonvielle pointed to a sandy trace snaking through a stand of pine trees — the last remnant of the Federal Point Road that once ran about 20 miles south, toward the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Here on the afternoon of Feb. 20, 1865, the flags, muskets and blue forage caps of the Fifth Regiment of the United States Colored Troops would have appeared in the distance.

“They came marching up this road,” Mr. Fonvielle said.

And they will again — albeit in a representational work of art.

In November, a bronze sculpture honoring the African-American soldiers who would have led the Union advance in what would become known as the Battle of Forks Road, will be unveiled on this spot, which is on the grounds of the Cameron Art Museum.

Just 250 feet from the entrance to the museum — with its collection of 3,000 works by the likes of Joan Miró, Robert Rauschenberg and Marc Chagall — the sculpture will stand, along with interpretive signs explaining the role of the black troops here.

Forks Road, although a small battle by Civil War standards, was a decisive engagement in the campaign to take Wilmington: the South’s last major open port and a critical lifeline for supplies to Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia. Mr. Fonvielle — professor emeritus of history at University of North Carolina-Wilmington and author of an upcoming book on the battle, “Glory at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road” — points out that less than two months after this battle and the city’s subsequent capitulation, Lee was forced to surrender at Appomattox.

More than 50 percent of all Union casualties in the Wilmington campaign were men of the United States Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T. — most of them at the Battle of Forks Road. The Confederates, who had been entrenched, repulsed the first assault here but withdrew after another day of fighting.

The memorial, which is being created by Stephen Hayes, a sculptor based in Durham, N.C., will celebrate the black soldiers who carried out the initial attack and suffered the brunt of the casualties. They were among the roughly 179,000 African-Americans who served in the United States Colored Troops, a branch of the federal army created in 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Some of those involved in the Wilmington campaign were escaped slaves from the Cape Fear region who had joined the Union effort.

It is quite a story and one that Mr. Fonvielle admits “is not what you’d expect to see at an art museum.”

And yet, the museum — which has been in its present location since 2002 — is now as committed to the Civil War as it is to exhibiting Modernist prints and paintings.

“I feel like it’s a moral obligation for us to recognize what happened here,” said Heather Wilson, the museum’s deputy director.

Coming at a time when Confederate memorials are being removed throughout the South, however, there are those who might not be happy seeing one erected to the memory of Union soldiers — particularly African-American soldiers. The Cameron is expecting that there will be attempts to vandalize the sculpture.

“It would be naïve not to,” said Anne Brennan, the museum’s executive director.

Of course, Wilmington has changed in 150 years. Like many cities in North Carolina, it has experienced enormous growth in recent decades. (The city limits themselves have expanded to include the area now occupied by the museum. At the time of the battle, it was an open pine barren, three miles outside Wilmington proper.)

Moreover, many of the area’s new residents are from some of the same Northern states that were the bitter enemies of those fighting the U.S.C.T. troops here in 1865.

But old attitudes die hard. When Ms. Wilson approached the local chapter of a Confederate heritage organization to tell them about the project, she said she received a cool reception. “I was asked why we would be erecting a monument to Union soldiers here,” she said.

Wilbur Jones, 85, a native of Wilmington, has an answer for that. Mr. Jones is a local historian who has written on the city’s role as an industrial powerhouse during World War II (when Wilmington’s shipyards churned out 243 vessels in four and a half years).

He is proud of his hometown and his Southern heritage, but he fully supports the Cameron’s decision to honor the African-American men who fought here, for the “other” side.

“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” Mr. Jones said. “Let’s recognize all the participants.”

Recognition has also come in the form of a $50,000 grant. The Cameron was one of 10 sites around the state to have been awarded an Inclusive Public Art Grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem. The U.S.C.T. memorial sculpture “fits squarely with the spirit of what our grant is all about,” said Joy Vermillion Heinsohn, the foundation’s assistant director. “It’s a very compelling story they want to tell.”

Ms. Heinsohn acknowledges that the sculpture could be a hot-button issue. “Our hope is that the conversations that may be sparked by these pieces of art can lead to a deeper understanding and a more complete acknowledgment of North Carolina’s history,” she said, adding that “we can’t control how the conversations may go.”

The completed bronze sculpture will have nine life-size soldiers marching with muskets, a flag bearer and a drummer boy. For the faces of the soldiers, Mr. Hayes used the faces of local U.S.C.T. Civil War re-enactors, and some descendants of actual participants in the battle. The casting process, in which the models’ faces were wrapped in wet plaster strips, took place over the course of a day at the museum in October.

2nd photo link:
James White, a Civil War re-enactor whose likeness was cast for Mr. Hayes’ sculptures.Credit...Peter Hoffman for The New York Times
“For me, it’s a big deal,” said James White, a resident of nearby Southport, N.C., who is descended from a black Civil War veteran and has been a U.S.C.T. re-enactor for eight years. “They could have used anybody’s face, but they asked me.”

As for the issue of Confederate statues, Mr. Hayes — a visiting instructor in studio art at Duke University — says he would welcome a memorial for the Rebel forces that opposed the black Union troops. “How would the two statues interact?” he said. “What would that conversation be like?”

A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2020, Section F, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: Where Soldiers Will March Again.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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