The Civil War, it explained, was caused by a Northern misunderstanding of the Southern way of life. It certainly did not reference the 200,000 African Americans, many of them former slaves, who fought for the Union during the conflict that began 150 years ago.
It wasn’t until after Jackson, 60, moved away from Mississippi to become a lawyer in Washington that he started talking to his grandmother about his family history and learned that his great-great-grandfather, Buck Murphy, was one of those black Union soldiers. She also told him his great-great-great-grandfather, Jack Murphy, was a white slave owner and Confederate soldier – and Buck’s master.
“I can’t imagine that some guy comes and says, ‘This is the only place you know, and you don’t know what’s on the other side of that river, but I want you to put this uniform,’” Jackson said. “Legally enslaved and owned by others, deprived of the ability to read and write … to taking up arms against his father and his master.”
After that, Jackson was hooked on the Civil War. References to history books pepper his conversation. He has copies of 19th century abolitionist newspapers and Confederate pamphlets. The uniform he wore as a battle re-enactor and extra in the 1989 movie “Glory” is on display at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, where he is a board member. Jackson’s law office has a print of a painting he commissioned that depicts a black Union flag bearer. The original hangs in his house.
His grandmother’s stories whetted Jackson’s appetite for more. A friend told Jackson he had recently seen a section of black Civil War soldiers’ graves at the Natchez National Cemetery. Intrigued, Jackson visited the graveyard to look for Buck Murphy’s headstone.
“I found the grave. Sure enough, it has the shield of the U.S. Colored Troops on it,” Jackson said. “It was in an area that had hundreds of U.S. Colored Troops buried there. And a lot of the names were like the names of kids I grew up with.”
An 1873 inspection report recorded 564 white Union soldiers and sailors and 2,521 black soldiers buried in Natchez National Cemetery. Director Rex Kern said between 200 and 300 people visit the cemetery monthly, and the number has increased because of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.
Jackson wrote to the National Archives and a few weeks later had a copy of Murphy’s military and pension records. Murphy dug trenches during the Battle of Vicksburg, then served for a year and a half in Company H of the 58th regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops.
The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, authorized African Americans to participate in combat, but white Union soldiers tried to restrict them to manual labor. Black soldiers were not satisfied with such marginalization, Vicksburg National Military Park ranger and Professor of African American history at Tulane University David Slay said.
“They wanted to do more,” he said. “They wanted to participate in combat, to fight for their freedom.”
Throughout the Vicksburg campaign, black soldiers like Murphy fought at the battles of Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend and Yazoo Pass and impressed their white counterparts.
“They’re writing home about the battle of Milliken Bend and how black men will fight, they fought like demons, and lauding the courage they showed,” Slay said.
Murphy left the war with rheumatism he developed performing picket duty in cold places and had to travel home to Natchez in a wagon because he couldn’t ride a horse. He was fined $12 for not returning his musket; a black Union veteran in the South would need to be armed to protect himself. Murphy, who could not read or write, signed his enlistment and discharge papers with an “X.”
Not recorded in the documents is a bit of family lore Jackson heard from his grandmother. At one point during the war, she said, Buck and Jack Murphy happened to visit the Murphy plantation at the same time.
“His father told him, ‘I heard that you had joined the Union Army. If we see each other across the battlefield, you shoot over my head and I’ll shoot over your head,’” Jackson said. “It was really quite strong acknowledgement of the family relationship.”
Jackson said that, while it is easier for him to relate to Buck Murphy because of their shared racial identity, he is interested in learning more about Jack Murphy.
He has been less successful tracing the latter’s heritage, but believes he was of Irish descent and moved to Mississippi from North Carolina before the war.
“You grow up with a particular identity,” Jackson said. “I think of Buck Murphy as my ancestor in that way of feeling connected, but I also know that Jack Murphy is my ancestor too.”
The sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War has revived debate about the conflict’s cause. Jackson said he understands why some people deny the central role slavery played in the Civil War, though pamphlets such one in his collection, an 1862 essay by the Confederacy’s vice president, “African Slavery as the Cornerstone of the Southern Confederacy,” indicate that the bondage system was integral to the conflict.
“It’s tempting to be revisionist for these things because the idea that you were going to fight and die to keep other people enslaved is not so attractive now as it was in those days,” he said.
Jackson plans to continue his family research and is glad that the war’s anniversary has brought increased attention to the importance of black Union troops.
“I’m absolutely certain this country would not exist, certainly not with the values it has, had not been for Buck Murphy and other black soldiers,” Jackson said. “For me that’s a source of great pride. The more I learn about him, the more I admire him.”
Reach reporter Rebecca Koenig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9867
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