TV Series Traces Civil War Through Eyes Of Descendants

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of a historical event that shaped this country forever: the Civil War. A new mini-series beginning on the National Geographic Channel tonight, takes a fresh look at the war, through the eyes of those whose own lives were marked by it. "Civil Warriors" profiles the journeys of eleven descendants as they follow in the footsteps of their Civil War ancestors. In the series, Kenneth B. Morris traces the steps of his great, great uncle, Frederick Douglass' son, Lewis Douglass, who fought in one of the first black regiments in the Union Army. Morris tells host Michel Martin what he discovered.

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MICHEL Martin, host:

I Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

My Can I Just Tell You commentary is just ahead. I have a last word on those budget negotiations that went to the 11th hour. I'm going to talk more about how those negotiations affected the city where I live.

But first, we want to take a fresh look at an historical event that shaped this country forever, through the eyes of those whose own lives were marked by it. We're talking about the Civil War.

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the opening salvos of the Civil War. For many people, the war still stirs up the deep emotion, not just because of the politics of the war - not least the racial politics - but because of their own personal connection to that conflict.

A new miniseries that begins tonight on the National Geographic Channel takes a look at the experiences of people on all sides of the war, through the eyes of their descendents. In three hour-long episodes, "Civil Warriors" profiles the journeys of 11 descendents as they follow in the footsteps of their Civil War ancestors, illuminating how those ancestors shaped the fabric of this nation's history.

Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. is a descendent of one of the heroes of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass. But in "Civil Warriors," Morris retraces the steps of his great-great uncle, Frederick Douglass's son, Lewis Douglass, who fought in one of the first black regiments in the Union Army.

And Kenneth B. Morris joins us now from KUCI in Irvine, California, to talk about what he discovered.

Mr. Morris, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KENNETH B. MORRIS, JR. (President, Frederick Douglass Family Foundation): Hi, Michel. Thank you so much for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, you really did not know very much about this ancestor before you started this project. You'd seen a picture of him, for example.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, that's correct. In fact, you know, I am the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass. So when I was coming up, most people naturally always wanted to know about Frederick Douglass and that connection. And I descend through Frederick Douglass's youngest son, Charles. And Lewis is Frederick Douglass's oldest son. So he's on another tree, on another line. So I never really thought that much about him, and I'd only seen an old photograph of him in his war uniform. And I knew that he was a sergeant-major in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, but I really didn't know much beyond that.

MARTIN: Now, in each of these episodes, a descendent was paired with someone who has done deep research into the life of that ancestor. And you were paired with Dr. Walter Evans, who, as I understand it, has an impressive collection of memorabilia and historic documents related to African-American history.

What are some of the things that Dr. Evans showed you?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, Dr. Evans is located in Savannah, Georgia. And I'd been hearing about his collection for about three years. So I was really excited to have an opportunity to go down and to take a look at it. And some of the things that he revealed to me, which were very interesting, were letters that Lewis had written to his then-fiancee, Amelia. And he was talking about his life as a soldier, and that they were getting ready to go into battle.

And in those letters, he was just so courageous in the way that he talked about what he would be facing. And one of the things that really jumped out at me was he said: If I should die, I hope that I fall with my face to the foe. And through these documents and these photographs, I was able to get a connection to him that I hadn't previously had.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip. And I think this is Dr. Evans, I believe, reading one of the letters that Lewis Douglass sent to his fiancee, Amelia. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Civil Warriors")

Dr. WALTER EVANS (Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature): (Reading) My dear girl, while I am away, do not fret yourself to death. Oh, I beg of you, do not. Remember that if I fall, that it is in the cause of humanity that I am striking a blow for the welfare of the most abused and despised race on the face of the Earth. My dear girl, I am sorry I did not bring your photograph with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EVANS: (Reading) I shall send you the mine, as I am now a soldier, which you will keep. I trust you will never be ashamed of.

MARTIN: What was your reaction when you heard those words?

Mr. MORRIS: My first reaction was that he was definitely a man that was deeply in love, and those were love letters, in way. And, you know, I've been married for 27 years, and I'm not sure that I ever wrote...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: ...such a sentimental letter to my wife in all of those years. But I was really just moved by just the passion in the letters. And again, you know, it was the first time that I had heard that. And really, that was the first time that I heard Lewis' words really coming to life. So it was very moving.

MARTIN: I know. Maybe your wife will be getting one of those letters from -now. It does kind of set a standard, doesn't it? No pressure there.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. I think you're putting the pressure on me here. So I need to start putting pen to paper right now.

MARTIN: And through your ancestor we also learn a bit about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which I think many people will at least have heard of - people who are familiar with the movie "Glory," or who have visited the portrait in the National Gallery in Washington that also depicts this regiment. But for those who may not know about it, can you just tell us a little bit about what you learned also about the 54th?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment was one of the first all-black voluntary infantries. And Abraham Lincoln had asked Frederick Douglass to recruit soldiers. And Douglass had recruited I believe up to 100 free black soldiers, and his first recruits were his own two sons. Lewis was his first recruit and then my great-great-grandfather, Charles, was his second recruit. And Frederick Douglass just believed that those who would be free themselves should strike the first blow, and he knew that if black soldiers were allowed to fight for the Union, that it could swing the balance of the war.

And one of my favorite quotes of Frederick Douglass during that time was, he wrote: Once the black man gets upon his person the brass letters U.S. - let him get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket - there's no power on Earth that can deny his citizenship.

And it was really interesting. As I went through this whole experience -because I had always known that enslaved black men took up arms, but I never really stopped to think that freed blacks. Now, here you have Lewis, the son of Frederick Douglass, who lived in this prominent family, and to think that he would actually risk his life and his own freedom to fight for this cause, it really - it says a lot about what they were fighting for, and they knew what they were fighting for.

MARTIN: This series makes a very powerful argument about family, in fact. It talks a lot about just the separations from family, how painful these were, both for enslaved, you know, Americans, people who were sold at will away from family members. And so it also, as you point out, the thought of these young men who, you know, Frederick Douglass having the opportunity to raise and see his own children as so many other, you know, as so many enslaved Africans did not have the opportunity to raise their children and then willingly sending them off to fight for the freedom of others, it just makes a very powerful statement about the sacrifices that so many people made.

I just want to play another short clip from another letter, you know, that he wrote, that references something you talked about earlier, is his desire that if he were to die, that he die courageously. And here is that clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Civil Warriors")

Mr. MORRIS: My dear Amelia, should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded, I hope to fall with my face to the foe. This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment. Not a man flinched, though it was a trying time.

How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My dear girl, I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember, if I die, I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops. We would put an end to this war.

MARTIN: That's very poignant. Very poignant words. What do you think this project meant to you when all is said and done, when you had a - going through and reliving the lives of these ancestors, revisiting what their lives had been - what you think it meant to you?

Mr. MORRIS: This experience really opened my eyes to the struggles our ancestors lived and died for so that we all can enjoy the freedoms that we have today. And the experience drove me to the very core of why I do what I do in my job every day. We have a family foundation called the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, and every day I tackle the issue of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. And really what we do is we are continuing Frederick Douglass's fight for people to live free. And this is something that just moved me profoundly, and it really got me thinking about the struggles that our ancestors went through and that we stand on their shoulders.

And you know, I've had the privilege over the past few years of talking to more than 50,000 students around the country, and all of the students think that this history happened so long ago and that Frederick Douglass lived so long ago. But my great-grandmother, whom I was very close to, Fanny Douglas - she actually met Frederick Douglass when she was a little girl - and I remember being a little boy and I remember sitting on her lap and she would tell me stories about meeting him. She would call him the man with the great big white hair. And one day it hit me: When I stopped to think that hands that actually touched the great Frederick Douglass and hands that touched mine, I can say I stand just one person removed from history, and this whole experience and this whole journey just really made me just think about the struggles and everything that our ancestors went through.

MARTIN: What do you think people might draw from this documentary who are not related to any of the people depicted in it? For example, your ancestors were quite accomplished and famous people, but many people are not and they don't have necessarily the ability to go and trace their stories in the way that you were, you know, able to do. What do you think that they might draw from it?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I hope that they will draw that not all of us descend from Frederick Douglass, somebody that we've heard of - and we haven't talked about my other famous ancestor, but I'm also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington - and we don't descend, all descend from a Washington or a Douglass, but each and every one of us descends from somebody that made a difference in this great country of ours. And I would hope that people would take the time and the opportunity to go back and research their own family stories and their own lineage, because I know that if they were to do that, they would find great men and women that made such a difference.

And the other stories that are depicted in this documentary, they're all unsung heroes. They're not people that you would've heard of. Lewis Douglas is probably the person that if you heard of anybody, he would be the person. So these are all great stories and the descendents that follow in the footsteps of their ancestors are learning such wonderful things about their ancestors. And I hope that people will take away from this documentary that they have these stories in their families, if they would just take the time to research them and to find out about them.

MARTIN: Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. is president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. That's a non-profit organization that seeks to spread awareness of the horrors of human trafficking and all forms of modern-day slavery. He also follows the footsteps of his great-great-uncle, Lewis Douglas, who fought in an all-black regiment in the Union Army. It's part of a documentary, "Civil Warriors," that airs tonight on the National Geographic Channel. And as I said, it follows descendents from all sides of the conflict. You want to check your local listings for exact times.

Mr. Morris, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MORRIS: Michel, thank you very much for having me on.

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