In the renewed efforts to encourage the National Park Service to commemorate Reconstruction, we should keep in mind that there actually are public commemorations of Reconstruction already in our nation. In Newberry, South Carolina, the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected one such roadside marker in 1994 to commemorate the “murder” of Calvin Crozier in September of 1865.
As the marker tells the story, Crozier, on his railroad trip home to Texas after serving in the Confederate Army, was asked to chaperone two white women who were traveling without male escort. Outside of Newberry, South Carolina, a “quarrel” ensued between Crozier and a uniformed (and active duty) soldier of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, during which Crozier cut an African American soldier on the back of the neck. The 33rd arrested the wrong white man, and the valiant Crozier turned himself in rather than let an innocent suffer in his place. The marker tells that Crozier was then “taken to 33rd headquarters, shot and buried in a shallow grave.” White residents of Newberry “exhumed the body, placed it in a coffin and reburied it.” In 1891, Crozier was exhumed again, and a monument was erected to his memory. The marker notes, in closing, that Col. Charles Trowbridge, the white commander of the 33rd, was “court-martialed” for Crozier’s “execution.”
Some elements of the actual story are indeed rendered truthfully on the marker. Crozier was escorting two white women when he knifed a soldier in the 33rd. He was summarily tried, convicted, and executed, under Trowbridge’s orders. Trowbridge was indeed brought to trial at a court martial.
But the rest of the story is far more complicated. The 33rd, Trowbridge commanding, was assigned to assist the Freedman’s Bureau in immediate postwar South Carolina. Trowbridge and his troops faced a hostile, and combative, defeated white population. During the 33rd’s deployment to the Palmetto State, South Carolinians killed three men of the 1st Maine Regiment, hoping to steal the cotton the men were guarding. Southern railroad officials refused to carry rations for the 33rd in their rail cars. A former Confederate soldier killed Trowbridge’s lieutenant by shooting him in the back outside the hotel in which the officers of the regiment were staying. White South Carolinians, in another incident, arranged for a train engineer to uncouple the train engine from the cars carrying the 33rd’s troops. The men of the 33rd were sitting ducks in these unmoving railroad cars on a trestle bridge, while whites fired on the trapped soldiers from nearby cover. (Only black sergeant Fred Brown’s intrepid action saved them when he ordered the white engineer, under gunpoint, to go back for the abandoned cars on the bridge.)
In this atmosphere, the events surrounding Crozier’s knifing of a 33rd soldier were far more menacing than the historical marker makes them appear. Crozier was a defeated Confederate soldier who deeply resented guns in black hands, and in the case of the 33rd, in the hands of former southern slaves, including many from South Carolina. The alleged incident with the white women was first reported in South Carolina’s papers as “insolent and…offensive language” by one of the black soldiers. Within a week of the initial reporting on Crozier’s death, the 33rd’s Sergeant Major wrote to the Daily Phoenix, the newspaper of the state capital, and corrected many facts in its account. Sergeant Major L.S. Langley also made it clear that as a soldier, Crozier knew that there was a quick and legal way to deal with soldier misconduct: reporting it to the soldier’s officers, not knifing the alleged offender.
In the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the newly defeated South, Crozier’s execution became a cause celebre for white southerners. Within a year, South Carolina papers were reporting that Crozier was responding to the insult of a black soldier putting his arm around the waist of a white woman and attempting to kiss her. From offensive language to an attempted assault: white people always inflated the “crimes” of black men against white women.
The Charles Trowbridge white South Carolinians despised was beloved by his troops. Susie Taylor King, a black nurse who served the 33rd, had effusive praise for Trowbridge and the loyalty and love he inspired in his men. The court martial found him not guilty.
By the 1890s, when lynching was reaching epic proportions, justified by the notion that black men were lusting after white women, some white South Carolinians seized on Crozier as a martyr and further embellished the whole story to give it an even more white supremacist cast. By 1890, a South Carolina paper was claiming that Crozier was “murdered by a negro mob…for defending the chastity of helpless women.” Thus the offensive language of 1865 became an attempted rape by 1890.
The residents of Newberry exhumed Crozier in 1891 and gave him a martyr’s memorial. A local minister praised Crozier as a “sublime manifestation of self-sacrifice” and lauded his “Christ-like spirit” – for surrendering himself to Union officials so an innocent man would not be punished for his crime.
The marker commemorating Calvin Crozier’s “murder” does commemorate Reconstruction, but only by revealing how white Southerners spun reality to serve white supremacy. The story of an ex-Confederate’s death at the hands of black Union troops replaces the true history of the era with myth. It was a myth that profoundly affected America. When Thomas Dixon, author of infamously racist novels about Reconstruction, was visiting Ben Tillman, rabidly racist southern politician, Tillman told Dixon this version of Crozier’s death. Dixon later claimed that this story inspired him to write The Clansman, the wildly popular novel that celebrated the bloody deeds of the Ku Klux Klan and that inspired the famous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.