Even if you are a not a military history buff, you might know about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the all-African-American regiment formed during the Civil War, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent abolitionist family in Boston. Their shared history with Colonel Shaw was depicted in the inspirational 1989 film, “Glory,” which starred Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington.
What you might not know is that many African-Americans also fought during the Revolutionary War. In fact, the Massachusetts men who ferried George Washington and the troops across the Delaware River were both white and African-American.
Take a close look at the famous portrait by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze of Washington crossing the Delaware River at Christmastime in 1776, and notice the soldier on the oar near Washington’s knee, “who is an African-American,” says Richard Patterson, director of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton.
“People often ask who he is, if he is a depiction of an actual historical person, but he’s not,” Patterson says. “In this painting, the German artist wanted to include everybody who was representative of an American type that was part of Washington’s army. The African-American soldiers were not only important in the regiment that handled the boats, but they were scattered through several other of Washington’s regiments as well.”
The courage and achievements of African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War — as well as the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and other pivotal conflicts in American history — will be celebrated at the Old Barracks the weekend of February 27 and 28, with “America, We Served! Three Centuries of African-American Soldiers.”
Visitors can experience the living history of our country’s African-American warriors through the stories and information shared by dedicated and knowledgeable re-enactors: the Revolutionary War will be represented by the predominantly African-American Rhode Island Regiment; the Civil War soldiers and their stories will be told by the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT); World War II will be represented by the 5th Platoon.
In addition, authentically kitted-out re-enactors will portray the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West, the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I fame, and even African-Americans who fought in the War of 1812.
Photos, literatures, and artifacts from wars past will be displayed, interspersed among the storytellers and their accounts of America at war.
Fred Minus, a longtime re-enactor and living historian at the Old Barracks, normally portrays an African-American infantryman of the Revolutionary War at the venue in Trenton. For “America, We Served!” he will be in full dress uniform as a sergeant-major in the USCT, a group he founded a number of years ago, which has traveled to schools, libraries, and numerous other locations to tell the story of African-Americans in the Civil War.
He notes that the re-enactors don’t do exact, first-person interpretations such as an impersonator might do, but a blended impression of well-researched history and characterization.
“We’re always gleaning information,” Minus says. “Things are popping up all the time, and it’s all part of the intricate and unknown (elements) of American history that we bring to life.”
For Minus, one of the most interesting aspects of the USCT group is being able to research and tell the stories of African-American Civil War soldiers buried in the tri-state area to their descendants.
“Within the graveyard of many an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church or Baptist church of any standing, you’ll find a tombstone for (a member of) the U.S Colored Troops,” Minus says. “We do a lot of ceremonies for found graves; that is, people find the graves (of their ancestors), and we go out and tell that person’s story.”
Minus says he has seen more and more visitors come to the “America, We Served!” event over the course of some five years.
“It’s working out very well. We’re growing and getting more refined with our displays and whatnot,” he says.
The event came about when the Trenton Historical Society was looking to co-produce a program with the Old Barracks, Patterson says, adding, “This was too good of an idea not to do. The key to bringing it together was Fred, as well as his fellow re-enactor Al Ward. I had met Fred and knew he was a member of a re-enacting group.”
“I knew that I wanted to do a big living history event, with a variety of historical periods, so I asked, ‘would you and the guys like to organize some African-American groups of re-enactors from the Revolutionary War?’” Patterson continues. “The guys jumped at it, but they ate up the history first, going on the road with other re-enactors, to Rhode Island, upstate New York, etc.”
Patterson explains that the Massachusetts men who participated in Washington’s crossing of the Delaware came from regiments Colonel John Glover raised out of the coastal towns of Marblehead and Gloucester.
“There were a lot of ‘free men of color’ who had good work there and who found some acceptance in the sea trades,” Patterson says. “For example, these towns were both known for whaling, and whaling vessels had a very polyglot crew. The ships went all around the world and often came back with sailors from the Caribbean, South America, etc. It was a relatively cosmopolitan place.”
“So when Colonel Glover raised his regiment in 1776, he would have had maybe two dozen ‘free men of color’ among the ranks,” he continues. “Since they were longshoremen and whatnot, they were quite familiar with small boats and barges, so these were the people Washington turned to to ferry the troops across the water. And then once they crossed they were regular infantrymen.”
Patterson estimates that, by the middle of the Revolutionary War, about 8 percent of the Colonial Army was African-American.
“In the beginning of the war Washington was not up on recruiting African-Americans, but many had already been enlisted, especially in the northern states, and were serving,” he says. “Washington was having a manpower problem, so out of necessity he was convinced (to include) African-Americans in the troops.”
Minus was raised on a farm in rural Delaware where his family share-cropped about 150 acres. At age 18 he ran away from home and worked in a poultry processing plant until he joined the Army, serving with the 97th Signal Corps from 1960 through 1963. Although he was not originally supposed to do so, Minus remembers being prepped to parachute into Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis.
“I was frightened and thinking, ‘we’re jumping into this damn swamp?’” he says. “Those were two of the scariest days in my life. I had not joined the Army to jump out of an airplane. I had friends who were (in airborne), and I knew the dangers, so I chose the signal corps. But they called it off, and I was forever grateful.”
After the Army Minus found work with the Reedman Corporation in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, where he became a master mechanic, staying with the organization for almost 40 years. “I got sucked in because back in the 1950s I loved muscle cars,” he says.
A relatively new resident of Smyrna, Delaware, where he lives with his wife, Faye, Minus had been living in Trenton since the 1960s while working at Reedman’s. Patterson and Minus met about 15 years ago, and it was around this time that Patterson asked if Minus if his black Civil War re-enactor friends might be interested in portraying African-American soldiers of the American Revolution.
A few years later, when Minus retired from Reedman’s, Patterson asked if he wanted to work part-time at the Old Barracks as an historical interpreter.
“Fred said ‘yes,’ and he’s worked Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays ever since,” Patterson says. “He isn’t ready to sit back and do nothing, so he keeps working those three days a week at the Barracks.”
“He always likes to joke that I’m ‘the silver tongued devil’ who convinced him to work here, but no,” Patterson says. “Fred had just never thought about it before and was surprised, but wasn’t hard to convince. He has a special passion for what he does.”
In addition to his work at the Old Barracks and involvement with the USCT, Minus is a member of the Sons of Union Veterans, as well as the Camp Olden Civil War Roundtable group in Hamilton. He also helped to establish a display of African-American Civil War artifacts at the Civil War and Native American museum in Kuser Park.
On the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Minus is listed as an actor/re-enactor with the 2005 James Horton production, “Slavery and the Making of America,” a four-part series that originally aired on PBS, just one of the various documentaries he has participated in as a re-enactor.
He says he only formally studied history in high school but has become more and more interested in the subject with time, delving into his family’s genealogy and crisscrossing the country to do research. Through this exploration, Minus discovered that both of his great-grandfathers had served in the Civil War, and that both had been wounded but had come home from the war.
Patterson is originally from Staten Island, where his parents owned and operated an offset printing shop. He was introduced to American history at a young age when the family would take their vacations in and around historic places such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Fort Ticonderoga, New York, and Williamsburg, Virginia.
“I got bitten by the history bug early on, always had my Lincoln Logs and my Davy Crockett hat and whatnot,” he says.
Patterson graduated from Hunter College, CUNY, in 1975, then went to graduate school at SUNY Albany at night while working at the Saratoga Battlefield by day. He earned his master’s degree in public history in 1990.
His career includes time spent at the Museum of Immigration and other jobs within the National Park Service. Patterson has been with the Old Barracks for more than 20 years. He once participated in Civil War re-enactments, and dressed for that conflict, but now prefers to portray a Revolutionary War soldier.
“The events of the Revolutionary War happened in New York and New Jersey, where I’ve lived, so I identify with it more,” he says
Both Minus and Patterson have posed to assist painter Illia Barger in creating her murals that celebrate Trenton’s Revolutionary War history, including the mural titled “After the Crossing,” currently in the works and slated to be unveiled in the spring (see U.S. 1, December 23, 2015).
“We were both involved with the first mural (titled “Winds of Change”), so Illia is an old friend,” Patterson says. “In that one you can find Fred in about two or three places in the crowd, and we both show up in a couple places each among the troops for the new mural.”
For the “America, We Served!” event, Minus is looking forward to reaching out to all kinds of people, to educate them about the roles African-American soldiers and sailors have played throughout our history. He also expects to be challenged by at least one or two smart-alecks who will see if they can poke holes in his historical accounts.
“You have to study,” Minus says. “When you’re doing living history, you always have someone come up to you who is really sharp and wants to ‘stump the interpreter.’ So you have to be up to speed on what to say and do.”
“When I talk to kids who come through, I tell them, ‘history is the most important subject to learn, and history repeats itself,’” he says. “When you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
“This event has a very broad appeal, and not just for African-Americans,” Patterson says. “A lot of folks who had no idea that African-Americans played such a big role in these conflicts will be fascinated.”
“I think school kids will be especially interested, and there’s a certain pride of ownership in this heritage,” he says. “This is a rare opportunity and an uplifting program — and you can’t make up some of these stories.”
America, We Served! Three Centuries of African-American Soldiers, Old Barracks Museum, 101 Barrack Street, Trenton. Saturday and Sunday, February 27 and 28, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Special event admission price includes both program and museum: adults, $4; seniors & students, $2; free for children age 6 and under and active duty military; family rate, $8. Free parking next to the museum. 609-396-1776 or www.barracks.org.