Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

To celebrate its victory in the American Civil War, the federal government hosted a Grand Review of Union veterans in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 23, 1865. Although the war preserved the Union and ended slavery, the parade was organized exclusively for white soldiers, and veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were not invited to participate. Refusing to be ignored, former African American soldiers conducted their own ceremonies several months later in Harrisburg.

The Garnet League, one of the most active African American organizations in Pennsylvania with 150 members, coordinated the event, held on Tuesday, November 14, 1865, which drew African Americans from throughout the Keystone State to celebrate the heroism of “the brave ‘black boys in blue,’ to give them a hearty welcome and do them honor,” reported Harrisburg’s Republican newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

Participating in the event were USCT commander Colonel George E. Stephens (1832–1888), an original member of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official Black units to fight in the Civil War, which included a number of Pennsylvania soldiers, and Simon Cameron (1799–1889), President Lincoln’s former secretary of war.

“I never doubted that the people of African descent would play a great part in this struggle,” Cameron said. “Thank God you nobly redeemed all you promised. Now all men are made free by the law. Thank God for all this!” Letters by General George Gordon Meade (1815–1872), U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874), and General Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818–1893 — which received “deafening applause” — were read for the assembled. Prosperous African American businessman and abolitionist Stephen Smith (1795-1873) pronounced that “a republican form of government . . . is utterly incompatible with a distinction based on race or color.” William Howard Day’s address was, according to the Daily Telegraph, a “masterly effort.” Ocatvius V. Catto (1839–1871), Black educator and civil rights activist, and Major General Joseph Barr Kiddo also spoke. In its November 15 edition, the newspaper noted, “The best of order prevailed throughout the entire proceedings of the day and evening, and the good conduct of the colored folks is the general topic of conversation among all parties of white people.”

But not everyone agreed.

The Patriot and Union, Harrisburg’s Democratic newspaper, called the event “negro day” and judged the parade a “failure.” It cited the speech by the “Right Reverend pompous Professor William Howard Day,” whose recommendations, claimed the reporter, included that African Americans should be able to “vote, hold office, intermarry with whites, in fact, rule America!” In closing, however, the writer offered one concession. Philadelphia’s Delmonico Band, guided around the city by former war correspondent, attorney, and educator Thomas Chester Morris (1834– 1892), “even serenaded the Patriot and Union Office, and we could not help but admit . . . that the ‘darkies’ made good musicians. . . . They were good musicians, but we thanked God that they cannot vote.”

Charles Coatesworth Pinckney Rawn (1802–1865), a noted Harrisburg antislavery activist and attorney, entered an account of the day’s activities in his journal — now in the collections of the Historical Society of Dauphin County in Harrisburg — before retiring to bed on the night of November 14: “Parade of Colored Men today in Honor of their service in the late war. A few hundred out, say two or three, not so extensive as had been expected, but quite respectable. They had speeches at the Capitol, and a feast at the soldiers rest.”

From Thursday through Sunday, November 4–7, a number of special activities and events will accompany a reenactment of the Grand Review on Saturday, November 6. Spearheaded by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Economic and Community Development, the event pays tribute to the 180,000 African American soldiers — 10 percent of the Union forces — who fought for the North during the Civil War. The reenactment recalls the nation’s only nineteenth-century commemoration staged for African American veterans of the Civil War, which drew participants from more than twenty-five states. The procession will begin with a blessing and dedication at the Forum Building, located in the capitol complex, at 8:30 a.m.

In addition to the Grand Review, the national meeting of the Network to Freedom/Pennsylvania Underground Colloquium will be held at Harrisburg University, 326 Market St., and the PenOwl Production Theatre Company’s performance of Harrisburg Proud: The African American Contribution to Dauphin County will be presented at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., on Thursday, November 4. On Friday, a symposium on Pennsylvanians who served in the USCT, “Rather Die Freemen than Live to be Slaves,” will be conducted at Brady Hall, on the campus of Pinnacle Health System’s Harrisburg Hospital, 111 S. Front St. The symposium will be preceded by a luncheon for registrants at the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion, 219 S. Front St, administered by the Historical Society of Dauphin County. The historical society is also showing, from Friday, October 15, though Wednesday, December 15, an exhibition addressing the USCT and Harrisburg’s Grand Review at the Harrisburg 2010 History Center, 213 Market St. The White Carnation League will host a dinner on Friday evening honoring descendants of USCT soldiers at the Hilton Harrisburg, 1 N. Second St. Following Saturday’s parade, a Chautauqua and Heritage Fair will be held in the atrium of the Commonwealth Keystone Building, 400 North St., from 1 to 6 p.m. The celebration concludes with a Legacy Women’s Awards Luncheon on Sunday at the Hilton Harrisburg. Several events require advance registration.


Michael Barton, Ph.D., is a professor of American Studies and Social Science at Penn State Harrisburg.


Stephen S. Noel, an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives’ Arrangement and Description Section, is currently working on a National Historical and Publications and Records Council grant project to identify and describe unprocessed collections held by the State Archives.


John Logan is contract specialist for the Department of Defense.


Both Noel and Logan were graduate students in Dr. Barton’s American Studies courses at Penn State Harrisburg.