Civil War sign honoring first Black soldiers in Tennessee to fight on front lines unveiled

Posted at 11:20 AM, Dec 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-16 12:32:33-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More than 150 years after the Battle of Nashville, a sign honoring the first black combat soldiers was unveiled Thursday outside STEAM Academy.

"It shows that the story is not only important to me, but it's important to our community, that the full history story is told that African Americans contributed to the great nation and serving the military," stated Gary Burke, a Battle of Nashville Soldier descendant.

After his own father died, Burke learned that his great, great grandfather fought on the front lines.

"After my father passed away, he had a series of documents from the War Department and on the back of one of those documents it said, my great great grandmother was receiving pension, from the Civil War," said Burke. "So that's how I knew I had a direct descendant-ship to a soldier of the Civil War."

Burke said it was an emotional finding but inspired him to continue as a Civil War reenactor that he had already been doing for six years.

Descendant of Battle of Nashville Solider Gary Burke

The Battle of Nashville Trust reached out to Burke to tell him about the new marker unveiling that was happening near the battle site for the Battle of Nashville—a site that truly tells a story.

"It was the Battle of Nashville—the Second Battle of Nashville. And this one is significant because you have African Americans actively bearing arms to fight for the federal side. For many of them. It was their first action. It was their first time having people actually shoot at them. So a lot of them were really not seasoned soldiers, at the time. Although they had been trained. This was their first real-time and battle," explained Tennessee State University Historian Dr. Learotha Williams.

For more than 100 years, the fact that black soldiers fought was mostly unknown and certainly, uncelebrated. Williams said much of that had to do with the lack of literacy causing not much to be written down.

"Particularly during this time, because their presence was oftentimes marginalized and erased in many instances from our collective memory when you're looking at Black soldiers from this period, you know, it's a study in memory, but it's also a study in amnesia," said Williams. "While I was in grad school, we were taught that 620,000 people died during the Civil War. Two years ago, that number has been cracked up to be elevated rather to about 800,000."

TSU Historian Dr. Learotha Williams

"We know that African Americans were very much a part of building up the defenses here. We know that they formed units that were stationed here," explained Williams. "Within the city that has a gazillion Civil War markers, how many of them are African Americans that talk about the role African Americans played? Maybe two, amongst all these that we have."

The Battle of Nashville Trust (BONT), Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. (Visit Music City), STEM Prep Academy, and Civil War Trails, Inc. came together to make this project a reality after three years of research, review, and planning. After securing a grant from the Tennessee Wars Commission in July 2020 the BONT solicited the expertise Williams.

The sign is part of the multi-state tourism program. Civil War Trails Executive Director Drew Gruber said the location of the sign is "at the site where for the first time in Tennessee regiments of Black men, many formerly enslaved, fought for their freedom as United States soldiers. It is also one of the only slivers of battlefield remaining in the rapidly growing Nashville area."

City leaders, state leaders, and those instrumental to the creation and history behind the Civil War sign met December 15, 2022, to unveil the new sign.

Williams explained the weight of the information that he studied and wrote on the sign.

"They [the black soldiers] knew intuitively, they knew that violence was the thing that held slavery together, right? So if their enslaved didn't have the whip, or the guns or the knives or whatever, slavery wouldn't exist. By the same token, they understood that violence was probably going to be the thing that broke it and at the end of the day, that's what it was," interpreted Williams.

Burke also said the sign unveiled Thursday is much more than a marker: "It's good to know that the next generation learns a little bit about local history, that it's our history together. That it's not black history, it is American history."

To read more about other Civil War trail makers in Tennessee and in other states, visit their website.

Two individuals with family ties to those who fought on the battlefield where the Civil War Trails sign was placed were in attendance for the unveiling December 15, 2022.