WILMINGTON — When Stephen Hayes set out to honor the United States Colored Troops who fought against so many odds in the Civil War, it wasn't just about creating a sculpture.
From the beginning, it was about remembering the faces of the men history has too often forgotten.
The U.S. Colored Troops regiments, officially formed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, were made up primarily of African-American men who took up arms to defend the newly attained concept of freedom for all. They weren't always welcome on the battlefield to stand shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts, and the Confederate forces charging toward them were known to be particularly brutal if they got them in their line of sight.
But they bravely stood firm in this opportunity to prove themselves as good soldiers and good citizens, especially in the final stages of the Union's campaign to capture Wilmington in 1865. They were the primary combatants at the Battle of Forks Road, a smaller yet consequential clash that marks its 156-year anniversary this weekend.
During the battle, U.S. Colored Troops regiments bore the brunt of the action and took most of the casualties. It's on this site, now home to the Cameron Art Museum, where Hayes' bronze sculpture to these men will be placed later this year.
When the Durham-based artist started to envision his piece, he came to the museum with an idea for how to distinctively represent these men.
He wanted to locate descendants of the U.S. Colored Troops and present-day reenactors of the regiments to serve as models for the 11 men who will be featured. Through a physical casting process of their faces, he wanted to incorporate the men who carry on the torch of the U.S. Colored Troops in what will be the first figurative sculpture of African Americans in New Hanover County.
"I feel it is important to have people be a part of the process," Hayes said. "I want this work to give the community a new idea of what monuments could look like and feel like. Pulling these faces from people, some of who descended from the U.S. Colored Troops, gives it a life-like quality."
As of February, nine of the 11 figures have been sent to a place in Seagrove, where they are going through the bronzing process.
He delivered the first nine figures to the company last March, the day before it closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also out of his studio at Duke University for much of the spring and summer last year due to shutdowns.
"There have been so many breaks where I've not been in the studio because of COVID-19," Hayes said. "But it is coming down to the end and I am happy."
The incorporation of U.S. Colored Troops descendants and reenactors became a priority for the Cameron Art Museum after Hayes' suggestion, even hosting a 12-hour casting of 17 people in November 2019. During that marathon session, Hayes would ask people to imagine they were the men of the U.S. Colored Troops who walked the very grounds that hold the museum.
In addition to the castings, the museum has been working to sift through the handwritten military records of roughly 5,000 names of men who served with the U.S. Colored Troops. From those, they are working to line up dates to identify the 1,600 men who fought at Forks Road, so Hayes can include their names on his sculpture.
Simone Mills Allen is one of the many who volunteered to help research the staggering list of names. Allen said it is tedious but rewarding work. She didn't know anything about the U.S. Colored Troops before volunteering.
"I come from a family veterans," she said. "My father was a veteran, my uncles were veterans and my husband is a Vietnam veteran. To be able to help tell this story of veterans is exciting because I have so much respect for veterans, especially Black veterans who fight for this country and have fought for this country while still not being treated like first-class citizens."
After landing the grant to commission the sculpture in 2018, Heather Wilson said the opportunity spoke to the "odd position as an art museum to also be the stewards of a historic site that has this extraordinary story."
"We hope this sculpture sparks dialogue and unites us and our common history," said Wilson, the museum's deputy director. "We want it to give agency and inspiration to young people who can see their faces represented in it."