Charlie Miller ’25
Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts is a classic souvenir shop, where families from far and wide negotiate mementoes and purchases with their children after a long day of walking up hills, perusing monuments, and following along with the audio tour. The store sells everything related to Gettysburg, including relics, shot glasses, and t-shirts. In the front room, they have a small section on the wall for toy soldiers. These figurines are just that–toys. However, the highly popular collectibles market that has seen various old, seemingly “worthless” trinkets like baseball cards and dolls also includes these miniature warriors. People young and old have long delighted in creating vast recreations of famous battles throughout history, collecting famous troops, or simply entertaining themselves or their child on a rainy day.
This store sells all manner of Civil War toy soldiers, from the plastic (and cheaper) sets of the blue and gray, to the carefully crafted and painted figures from the Irish brigade, the iconic green flag and gold harp gleaming on each one. While serious collectors often spend hours researching every facet of a prospective purchase, casual toy-soldier enthusiasts may well glaze over the matter of historical accuracy when dealing with these figurines. Admittedly, as I looked at the display, my eyes scanned over several of the soldiers, and I reminisced about my days playing with toy soldiers in my room as a child. However, in doing so, my gaze soon fell upon a cluster of soldiers whose real life counterparts never actually fired a shot at Gettysburg: United States Colored Troops.
Over 175,000 black men fought for the Union, beginning in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts. By the end of the war, they made up around one-tenth of the entire United States force, and fought bravely in many brutal engagements. Some of the most famous of those units include the 54th Massachusetts Colored Troops, who stormed the Confederate garrison at Fort Wagner, the subject of the Academy-Award winning 1989 film, Glory. Often due to the nature of their assignments and to the brutality with which Confederate soldiers fought them, Black soldiers sometimes fell at a substantially higher rate than white soldiers, and were paid far less. Confederates’ particularly violent treatment of Black soldiers reached a crescendo during Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s infamous, controversial massacre of surrendering troops (many of them black) at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, 1864.
It is intriguing that Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts features USCTs for sale, as the only African-Americans directly involved with the military actions of the Gettysburg campaign were the slaves who accompanied Lee’s men on their march north, along with the free blacks who were captured and sent south (often back into bondage) by the Confederates. It appears that the store’s merchandise choice may be an attempt to connect Gettysburg with the greater American Civil War. For many visitors, Gettysburg is their first and only Civil War battlefield, and as is evident in the National Park Service’s own museum as well as at other institutions in town, there is a growing emphasis to more squarely contextualize Gettysburg’s role within the larger war, both for historical accuracy and to help those first-time Civil War tourists to appreciate broader themes and stories beyond, yet still somehow related, to Gettysburg proper.
Along these lines, perhaps the inclusion of USCT toy soldiers is a conscious attempt to connect Gettysburg to the cause of emancipation and the black freedom struggle that was so inextricably bound up in the cause of Union and why soldiers fought at Gettysburg at all. If such intentions are indeed reflected in the store’s choices, it would represent a relatively modern approach to marketing and understanding the battle and war within a grander context. For many, the battlefield long has been viewed through a reconciliatory lens, where both northerners and southerners could come to marvel at the bravery and heroic actions of the men that fought on each side, regardless of their causes. Many of those individuals have yearned to minutely analyze every tactical maneuver made on the field. However, in more recent years, an increasing number of visitors have sought look to connect the historical landscape more broadly with the causes and outcomes of the war, particularly with regards to emancipation and race relations.
Needless to say, this contemporary (and for some more uncomfortable) approach is often missing in merchandise and souvenir shops throughout town. Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts might sound like one of these typical shops that does not delve into the causes or politics of the war, but their sale of a USCT toy soldier shows otherwise. Alternately, but relatedly, maybe they are seeking to be inclusive in their merchandise such that they are better able to appeal to a wider and more diverse group of visitors who yearn to see their racial history and Blacks’ contributions to the war as a whole reflected in the kinds of merchandise available for sale in town.
While this store’s apparent attempt at selling merchandise that is more historically inclusive is praiseworthy, my optimism was admittedly sullied by something I encountered on another visit to the store: A Black Confederate toy soldier.
The “Black Confederate myth” is a well-known fallacy, and one that has been exaggerated and inflated to justify the Southern cause by promoting the narrative that the Confederacy was fighting merely for states’ rights, and that slavery was a benevolent institution. While Southern Blacks sometimes accompanied their enslavers in the ranks, there are no records of any African-Americans seeing combat as a part of the Confederate army. No Black man ever dressed in gray and was a soldier in the form that the figurine shows. While toy soldiers are often meant to provide a re-creation or specific interpretation of a battle, the sale of a Black Confederate toy soldier has other implications for the seller’s intentions, whether they be indeed rooted in promoting the Lost Cause narrative, or simply an historically uninformed attempt at providing “collectibles for all.”
Toy soldiers have provided a variety of functions through history, even including aiding military leaders in planning their campaigns. Now, collectors look to find toy soldiers, old and new, that are unique and capture a specific part of military history. Unfortunately, neither a child interested in collecting toy soldiers for play nor an adult who is not particularly well –versed in the history of the Civil War era would likely think to second-guess the historical accuracy of such a figure, and might indeed believe that there were actually Black Confederate soldiers.
The sale of representative figurines of soldiers that, on one side did not exist, and on the other side, were prevalent but not present at Gettysburg brings up interesting questions and discussions about the possible motivations or reasons behind the merchandise for sale at Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts. Whether or not certain messages are intentional through the sale of particular merchandise, such messages are being readily and enthusiastically consumed by scores of visitors from across the country, and even around the world, some for better, others for worse.