Thanks principally to the critical and popular success of the film Glory (1989), our collective memory of the Civil War includes African American soldiers (known in their era as United States Colored Troops). But while we might have a sense of those soldiers’ general participation in the war, few individual African American soldiers or officers have made it into our Civil War narratives – which also, and perhaps even more significantly, means that we don’t tend to think about African American Civil War veterans and their experiences and identities beyond the war. Parker David Robbins (1834-1917) is a good candidate to correct those trends.
Robbins doesn’t fit either of the two identities that historians have most consistently linked to the USCT: he was neither an ex-slave nor a free Northern African American. Instead, he was born free in North Carolina, into a mixed-race farming family that included Native American as well as European and African American heritages. By the time the war started, Robbins had begun developing his own North Carolina family and legacy. He was married and running a 100-acre farm on which he paid Confederate taxes. But when he learned of the creation of African American regiments in the Union Army, he crossed into Union territory and enlisted in the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry, in which he served until the war’s end. Glory rightly makes a great deal of the unique threats faced by the war’s African American soldiers, and thus of the inspiring bravery they demonstrated simply by joining and staying in the army; Robbins’ abandonment of a settled and comfortable life in order to enlist exemplifies those histories.
Moreover, Robbins’s post-war life was just as compelling and as historically representative. He entered politics in the early moments of Reconstruction, serving as one of fifteen African American delegates to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868. He went on to be elected to the state’s House of Representatives for multiple terms, among many other political offices and appointments. During the same years, Robbins continued to build his professional and personal legacy in this transitional moment for the New South; he even patented two labor-saving devices, a cotton cultivator and a saw-sharpener, to bolster the productivity of his farm and sawmill. As was the case for so many of his Southern African American brethren, Robbins faced setbacks on all fronts in the post-Reconstruction era – but he persevered and continued to thrive, including building and operating his own steamboat, the Saint Peter, down the Northeast Cape Fear River.
Remembering the Civil War service of African American soldiers is simple and inspiring; remembering their time as veterans, over the subsequent decades, is often less of either. Our collective memory of the period tends to focus on the war to the exclusion of everything that followed, and African Americans’ Civil War histories can be folded into triumphal narratives much more smoothly than can their post-war histories as they negotiated the twists and turns of Reconstruction. Additionally, as far too many contemporary veterans can attest, we generally do a much better job celebrating wartime service than engaging with the complex post-war experiences and challenges of veterans. Yet the story of Parker David Robbins does include its triumphs and inspiring moments, as well as its challenges and struggles – and all of them, from his life before the war to his escape and enlistment and up through every moment of his post-war life, illustrate just how fully this group of American veterans reflected, contributed to, and enriched their era.