But area historians say they have begun to explore the importance of the U.S. Colored Troops, delving into the experiences kept alive both by oral tradition and memorabilia shelved and dusty in descendants' attics.
The search for information on those soldiers stems from the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
Events marking the 150th anniversary of the war will be held over a five-year period beginning this year.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Tourism is planning a Grand Review of U.S. Colored Troops, a re-enactment of a parade Nov. 14, 1865.
This event will be the first in which descendants will convey individual stories of those soldiers.
The troops were not invited to the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., in
1865, although they comprised 10 percent of Union forces, according to Lenwood Sloan, director of the cultural and heritage program for state's tourism department.
Sloan and other historians statewide are gathering information that tells the soldiers' stories. And they're asking all descendants of those soldiers to get in touch and share information that will be used to flesh out history.
So far, about 100 soldiers have been linked to York County, either because they were born, lived or died here, said Victoria Lander, assistant librarian for York County Heritage Trust.
More than 30 are buried in a rural cemetery beside Fawn AME Zion Church in Fawn Grove.
Time has all but washed the gravestones clean, but some names remain, as do markers noting membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, the predecessor to Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.
Lander said she began researching this segment of Civil War troops in recent months following a request from the tourism department.
"We didn't have anything," Lander said. "I started looking, thinking I'd find 30 or 40 guys. I never dreamed I'd find 100, and I've really only just begun the project."
Lander says despite a vast array of information about the Civil War -- films, books and documents -- there appears to be little information about the 180,000 members of the U.S. Colored Troops, who fought and died alongside white soldiers.
More than 10 percent of those soldiers trained in Camp William Penn in Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County. It was one of eight facilities nationwide where black soldiers trained for combat.
Congress enabled states to begin training black soldiers in 1862. In May 1863, General Order No. 143 of the War Department established Colored Troops, Sloan said.
He explained that the state tourism department has held parades and commemorative events, but this is the first event in which these troops will be recognized as individuals.
To that end, he is asking descendants of those soldiers to retrieve memorabilia and recollect stories that can be shared with the public.
In all, about 36,000 died in battle and another 68,000 died from battle-related wounds, Sloan said.
Among those who survived the war was John Aquilla "Quil" Wilson, a member of the 32nd Division. Until his death in 1942, he was the oldest surviving Civil War veteran.
Wilson was 101 when he was buried in the Fawn AME church cemetery. He was one of 53 black volunteer militiamen who dug trenches at Wrightsville that helped defend the town during the Gettysburg campaign, Sloan said. He later joined the U.S. Colored Troops, Lander said.
After the war, he returned to Gatchelville in southern York County, where he lived with his wife, reared children and eventually welcomed grandchildren, Lander said.
During her research, Lander says she's found that these soldiers remained active in their communities long after the war ended. She says they "really gave back to a community that, essentially, didn't even want them in the community because of their color."
She, like Sloan, said many of these soldiers might have been fighting to free families from slavery. Some might have escaped slavery only to return to fight for others' freedom.
"It's so sad, there's so much that needs to be told," she said of their stories. "This is a source that has remained untapped for a long time; just looking at what they did and who they were will provide a much more of a full picture of the Civil War."
How to help
The Pennsylvania Department of Tourism's Cultural and Heritage Tourism Program seeks information from the descendants of the United States Colored Troops to participate in the sesquicentennial celebration of the American Civil War.
It seeks descendants to help piece together history for the Nov. 6, 2010, Harrisburg Grand Review event. Descendants are asked to call 800-Visit-PA. Learn more online at http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/grandreview/
-- Reach Kathy Stevens at 505-5437 or ksteven firstname.lastname@example.org.