The Soldier of U Street
The late winter day was overcast and nippy with the feel of pending snow in the air as I walked around the African American Civil War Memorial I snapped some pictures of the bronze soldiers known as the Spirit of Freedom, read a few of the names on the wall and looked around for the entrance to the museum. And I looked. And I looked.
Looking turned into full on searching. There were large photos of black Union soldiers decorating the walls of the building I was facing, but when I rounded the corner from the memorial, I only found an entrance to a CVS. I went in the building next to the CVS and asked a security guard about the entrance to the museum. “It’s across the street from the memorial,” he said. I exited and looked across the street – there was a row of houses, a charter bus and an old school, but nothing that looked like an entrance.
Frustrated, I started walking toward the memorial again when I spotted a young black man in full Union soldier uniform. I approached him and asked about the museum. Jackpot! He not only gave me perfect directions he offered to give me a personalized tour when he returned. “By the way,” he said, “I’m known as the Soldier of U Street.” Then he ducked into the CVS.
Marquett Milton, aka the Soldier of U Street, is a Washington, D. C. native, “born and raised on Capitol Hill,” he said. He’s passionate about learning as much as he can about the role of African Americans in the city he loves and sharing that knowledge with visitors of the museum.
Milton first learned of the museum when he was in high school. A teacher showed the movie “Glory” to him and some classmates and it instantly sparked Milton’s curiosity. “Why weren’t we taught this?” he recalled asking the teacher. “This history can make a difference in the world.” From that point on, Milton set out to learn as much as he could about African American Civil War soldiers and the colored regiments they served in.
Milton, now 24, volunteers at the museum full time and supports himself by doing jobs for other businesses in the U Street neighborhood family. He’s a military history buff who initially wanted to serve in the military, but said he didn’t score well on the entrance exam. Regardless, you can see how much he enjoys what he does. Once Milton gets to talking, he easily lapses into the language of a military man. He talks of his provost (sounds like provo) duties, which includes guarding and maintaining the memorial and the other work he does for the museum and the community.
“I tell young people daily, we fought and freed ourselves,” Milton said. “Nobody freed us. We freed ourselves.”
I asked Milton some more detailed questions about his passion and to show a portion of his museum tour – a demonstration of the components of a Union soldier’s uniform:
Q. When did you learn you wanted to be a Civil War reenactor?
A. When I was in high school, Eastern Senior High, I had a teacher, Mr. Irving, who showed the history class the movie “Glory.” We felt bad at the end when all of the soldiers were wiped out. At the time, I was in ROTC, so I was interested in military history. Mr. Irving pulled me aside and said, “Not all of the soldiers in the 54th died.” I was shocked! Something told me that I needed to know more.
Shortly after, I was walking in this neighborhood, U Street, and found the African American Civil War Museum. I walked in and talked to the curator, Harry Jones, who told me about the colored regiments that formed in Washington, D. C. I asked him how I could get involved with the museum and he took me on a tour and introduced me to Dr. Frank Smith, the museum’s director. At the end, he took me to lunch and when we were finished, I told him I’d be back the next day.
Q. What’s an average day at the museum like for you?
A. I’m here every day except Mondays. I usually arrive around 10 a.m. The first thing I do is put my uniform on.
I welcome our guests to the museum and walk them through the exhibits. When I’m finished here, I go across the street to the memorial and start my provost duties. I’ll pick up trash, inspect for marks – we have a lot of skateboarders who grind near the soldiers’ names – so, my job is to protect the memorial. And then I walk up and down U Street. A lot of people can’t find the museum. Since I’m in uniform, people can find me and I’ll guide them to the museum.
Q. You portray an actual Civil War soldier, Andrew Green. Tell us about him.
A. When Andrew Green was enslaved here in Washington, D.C., he was owned by a lady named Isabelle Williams. I’m still trying to find information about where they were. What I do know is Andrew was assigned to different hotels and would have been a waiter. We know that because he listed waiter as his occupation in the first USCT (United States Colored Troops).
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It didn’t last long, but at the time, you had a large number of African Americans from all over at this camp. When they were recruiting African Americans to join the first and second USCT, he [Andrew] enrolled in the first and was put in Company A.
The reason why I chose him is because we’re the same age – I’m the age he was at the time he served – and we’re similar in height. They say he had hazel eyes, but other than that, we’re pretty similar.
Milton ended our conversation with this: “By doing this, I’m freeing myself. By learning how they freed themselves, I’m freeing myself.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist