Wilson Brown, 22 years old at the time, fled the Carthage Plantation on foot in March 1863. He left Natchez for the banks of the Mississippi River, which he plunged into before swimming toward the U.S.S. Hartford, the flagship of Admiral David Farragut’s fleet, and asking to join the Union Navy.
During the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, Brown served at the berth deck with six other officers as Farragut led his fleet into Mobile Bay to cut off supplies to the Confederacy. At Fort Morgan, Admiral Franklin Buchannan’s Confederate flagship and gunboats opened fire. A shell exploded near Brown, killing four of his compatriots on the berth deck and sending him down into the ship’s hold, where he lay unconscious, ribs broken, with a dead soldier lying on top of him.
When Brown came to, he returned to his station, later receiving a Medal of Honor for his service that day. He continued to fight for the Union’s armed forces until the end of the war.
Though he was the only Mississippi-born soldier to earn a Medal of Honor credited to the state in service to the Union during the U.S. Civil War, Brown was one of many U.S. Colored Troops that fought against the Confederacy. After the War Department formed the Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863, hundreds of thousands of former slaves, then-emancipated, joined the fray. More than 8,000 of those soldiers were from Natchez and are known as the Natchez U.S. Colored Troops.
Adams County is now recognizing the NUSCT’s contributions and history through the recently commissioned Natchez African American Civil War Memorial.
‘Building Something to Tell Our Own Story’
Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson formed the Natchez U.S. Colored Troops Monument Project initially as a committee in 2021, when Gibson selected Robert Pernell as chairman. Pernell reached out to others who called Natchez home to head various subcommittees. Deborah Fountain, Lance Harris, Devin Heath, Dan Gibson, Roscoe Barnes III, Robert Pernell and Carter Burns comprise the team. Their combined experience spans industries such as genealogical research, journalism, marketing, public service, public office, nonprofit management, tourism and more.
In January 2021, Gibson and Pernell kicked off fundraising efforts for the project. Five months later, the project publicized its request for qualifications and proposals. The document introduces the Natchez African American Civil War Memorial as “a tribute to the individual African American Army and Navy enlisted and also a recognition of their descendants.” The group envisioned the monument as a source of “inspiration, learning and connection to other USCT places of interest in Natchez.”
Between 2020 and 2021, organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League launched campaigns to remove almost 200 Confederate monuments across the United States, with efforts increasing in Mississippi. In April 2021 the Natchez Board of Aldermen heard a formal request for the removal of a Confederate monument that had stood in Memorial Park since 1890. The city is now about 63% Black.
A 2004 state law dictates that Mississippians may not remove or alter war memorials unless relocating them to a “more suitable location” for display. So, the board rejected the request, and the Confederate memorial remained in Natchez. In November 2022, however, conversations arose regarding an idea for a new monument.
The Natchez U.S. Colored Troops Monument Project arose from these conversations.
“There was a movement to tear down one of the monuments in Memorial Park,” Chairman Pernell shared. “We had a conversation with the mayor, and he was interested in building another African American monument of some type. Our philosophy was, rather than tearing something down, we should just build something to tell our own story.”
Beginning A Monumental Project
The project team received submissions from every region in the U.S. Jay Warren, one of the many artists who responded to the proposal request, shared his portfolio of detailed Bronze portraiture. Ultimately, the committee voted—unanimously—to commission Warren to design a monument to the thousands of U.S. Colored Troops from Natchez.
“We were scoring each of the participants,” Roscoe Barnes III, head of marketing and public relations for the Natchez USCT Project, told the Mississippi Free Press. “Whoever had the largest score at the end, that’s who we chose, and that was Mr. Warren.”
Thomas Jay Warren is a credentialed sculptor who lives in Oregon whose work is on display across the U.S. and Canada. Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Warren was eager for the opportunity to create a monument in his home state.
Warren’s early ideas included only two men, but he later decided to include a third figure to reflect the U.S. Colored Troops enlisted in the U.S. Navy after reading the extensive historical background information that the committee’s genealogist, Deborah Fountain, provided him. The naval figure in Warren’s updated design will overlook the river from the site’s location on a bluff.
While the artist initially considered sculpting Wilson Brown with a Medal of Honor on his person, he has tentatively decided against it. “I just kind of want to show them during their everyday service, not during a big ceremony or anything like that,” Warren explained. “Everybody wasn’t a Medal of Honor recipient. I want it to reflect all of the men who signed up and served in Natchez.”
The U.S. Colored Troops comprised approximately 200,000 people. The majority of these individuals were previously enslaved African Americans who, following the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of 1862, were free to join the Union’s military ranks. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 enabled Black Americans to serve in combat positions. That same year, General Order 143 solidified procedures for accepting them into Union ranks, formally establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops which, in turn, created the USCT.
Beyond the majority-Black troops, the USCT also welcomed soldiers of other backgrounds, such as those of Asian descent, into their ranks.
By the end of the Civil War, USCT troops accounted for 10% of the Union army. Approximately 8,000 of these men came from Natchez.
“My work involves telling the untold stories of the people in Natchez—not just one group, but all groups,” Roscoe Barnes III, who serves as the cultural heritage and tourism manager of Visit Natchez in addition to his role with the NUSCT Project, said.
“Right now we’ve been focusing on the African American story, because that has not been highlighted or publicized,” Barnes added. He explained that Natchez is largely known for its lavish Antebellum structures like the Longwood Plantation that cotton and sugarcane planters erected, historic buildings that tourists now frequent.
One of the oldest cities along the Mississippi, Natchez owes much of its early wealth from slaveholders who built their plantation homes there. Union troops burned some southern cities including Atlanta and Richmond to destroy supplies and property that could benefit the Confederate army during the Civil War. However, Natchez was never burned, and historic buildings remained intact.
“People discovered ways to promote (Natchez) using the historic homes (that remained standing),” Barnes said.
Mississippi previously witnessed the debut of a USCT monument nearly two decades ago in Vicksburg, another city deeply connected to Confederate and African American history.
Vicksburg National Military Park, one of the most “monumented” areas of land on Earth, houses dozens of Confederate-honoring statues. In 2004, though, it became the first national park in American history to house a monument to the USCT—more than 140 years after the regiments formed there.
Both Warren and Barnes agree that publicly acknowledging USCT in Natchez is overdue. “To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, it’s an idea whose time has come,” Barnes said. “This will be a first for this area.”
The committee members anticipate that the memorial they are planning will pair well with the one already present in Vicksburg. “If they go to Vicksburg to see the various monuments (and) statues there, all they have to do is get on (Highway) 61 and come on down to Natchez,” Barnes said. Rather than joining other monuments in a memorial park, the newly planned monument will sit on Natchez Bluff at Madison and Broadway streets, on the actual site where USCT soldiers would have trained alongside white Union troops in Natchez.
Fulfilling An Immersive Vision
An infantryman, a heavy-artillery soldier and a Navy sailor facing the Mississippi River stand shoulder-to-shoulder at 10 feet tall in Jay Warren’s designs, which the committee released to the public and put to vote during a town hall in October 2022. In opposition to the ways in which the committee believes the U.S. Colored Troops have been overlooked for so long, the statues are intended to feel larger-than-life and impossible for passersby to ignore.
Warren is no stranger to imposing designs, and he uses a particularly contemporary technique to maintain large designs’ accuracy: 3D printing. The artist formerly used the lost-wax casting technique, an ancient sculpting approach in which a mold is made by taking an impression of a wax model. The wax is then burned out, leaving only the mold into which molten metal can be poured at the foundry. Warren has since replaced the wax models with 3D-printed models, which he says better retain details by remaining specifically sized.
“I sculpt the piece life-size, get all the details exactly right; then I have it 3D-scanned, and then I have it printed out twice (as) life-sized,” he explained. “I’ve done this two or three times now, and it’s just fantastic.”
Pieces of bronze removed from their molds have to be welded back together. When modeled in wax, the pieces do not always fit together perfectly, and some of the detail of the work is lost in the welding process. The 3D-printing method instead results in precisely fitted pieces that reflect Warren’s skill in sculpting and modeling.
This process is time-intensive, and it has not yet begun. The design process itself is only just coming to a close.
Each design showcased at the public forum in October features architectural landscaping components designed with fellow Mississippi native Brantley Hall. Inscriptions in aluminum line brick borders, listing the thousands of individuals who served. Paths radiate outward from the 12-foot-tall sculptures of three African American troops.
In December, the NUSCT Project announced the winner of the public vote: a design featuring six curved pathways radiating from circular paving where the statue stands off-center, across from mounted name plates.
In May, African American Civil War Museum Director Dr. Frank Smith, signed an agreement to provide approximately 8,000 names of the USCT stationed at Fort McPherson. These names will be listed on the monument.
Landscaping plays an important role given that Chairman Robert Pernell plans for the site to be a day-long excursion for many where visitors can spend time engaged in activities such as picnicking on the grass when they are not reading about USCT history. He and Warren have planned for the design to have interactive elements, such as a QR code allowing visitors to research descendants and read more about the monument’s historical context.
Lance Harris even suggested that the design may have a virtual-reality component, as previous projects he has worked on have incorporated. However, this detail has yet to be finalized.
Helping a ‘Dream Come True’
One of the last remaining steps for Jay Warren is molding the soldiers’ faces. While the artist has mocked up various visualizations embedded with historically accurate attire, he would love to model the statues’ faces after living descendants of the NUSCT.
From the beginning, the NUSCT Project hoped to honor not only the troops but also their living descendants, who may account for as much as 90% of the Black population currently living in Natchez, Historic Natchez Foundation Director Emerita Mimi Miller reported. Additionally, history has not preserved much about the faces or identities of the U.S. Colored Troops in Natchez—Warren is not aware of any photos of Wilson Brown in existence, for example.
The importance of these living descendants coupled with the immense genealogical research Deborah Fountain conducted for this project impressed Warren so much that he came up with the novel idea of modeling the statues after living descendants.
As such, the committee has publicized calls for descendants.
Such an intervention would parallel the committee’s desire to involve the community every step of the way by holding town halls and public votes as part of the process.
At an early forum in 2021, disruptors hurled racial epithets during Fountain’s presentation of the project. Now unphased by the jarring interruption, the project pushes forward. Pernell reflects that the community as a whole has accepted the project, and he says that they could not create such an installation without its support.
By all accounts, the committee feels well-supported and eager to continue their momentum, as does Warren. Born in the Delta, Warren studied art at Mississippi College. He did not study sculpting in bronze until later in his life.
“I was always pretty interested in (monuments), but I never really had a good feeling that I could make that happen,” he said. “When I was 26, I’d been working in catalog design for a company in Vicksburg for a few years, and I was on a private sharing plan, and the company was taking off like crazy. I quit my job and moved to New Jersey to study bronze casting, you know, of big monuments.”
Married, employed in a stable job and father to his 5-year-old daughter, Warren left Mississippi for New Jersey’s Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture where he made only $2.10 per hour.
“I finally decided: If I’m ever going to do it, I’m gonna have to go ahead and do it now,” Warren said of his decision to chase his dream. “So, I did it. I dropped my job and went there working as an apprentice.”
Despite his adventurous move, Warren was unsure of his technical merit, uncertain that he could actually craft the highly detailed public works he envisioned.
“I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this, but at least I’ll learn how to work at some stage of it,” Warren remembered thinking to himself. “If I can just get one piece out in a public place, that would be great. I would be happy with that.”
Now, over 30 years later, he has created dozens of portraits of well-known and loved figures, from John Coltrane, whose saxophone he meticulously crafted using his 3D-printing process, to Jesus Christ enacting the first and fourth “Stations of the Cross.”
“Coltrane is 8 feet tall so I had to scale that saxophone to fit,” Warren said, describing his meticulous sculpting process. “So, I bought a saxophone on Ebay. Now, I would get it 3D-scanned, but back then, I had to deconstruct how all these parts went together. I’d seen so many statues of musicians where the instrument itself has been generalized—guitars with no strings showing.”
“With Coltrane, I wanted the saxophone to be right for him,” he continued. “I had a little booklet I had made to show them (at the foundry) how to put the saxophone together. I even put the engraving that Coltrane had on his saxophone.”
The civil-rights era particularly interests Warren. Medgar Evers serves as the subject of one of his earliest sculptures in 1991. His 2021 statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the largest bronze statue of Dr. King in the world, standing 14 feet tall.
One of his proudest works, “The Emancipation and Freedom Monument” in Richmond, Va., depicts a formerly enslaved man breaking his chains while a woman stands behind him, holding her baby—a sign that enslavers may no longer break apart her family.
Such depictions of treasured historical figures can be daunting for Warren. “It has to be a really good likeness,” he said. “I mean, it has to look like the person because everybody is familiar with that face. I put a lot of time into that. A lot of times, it’s about choosing the right photo to work from.”
Nevertheless, Jay Warren feels proud to receive commissions for such pieces, and prouder still to leave his current home in Oregon to create public works in his birthplace. He hopes that one day he will be offered the opportunity to create a statue in Rolling Fork, where he grew up. However, public funding for such works is difficult to come by there, he expressed.
For the time being, though, Warren speaks compassionately and excitedly about his work on the Natchez African American Civil War Memorial. “I’m so excited about the Natchez piece,” he said. “I’m getting towards the end of my career, and this is just a dream project. To go back to Mississippi and do a piece this big. You know, this is like a dream come true for me, really.”
Warren and the Committee alike acknowledge that this memorial will be a long-standing representation of Mississippi’s history.
The oldest discovered piece of bronze metalwork, an ax head, originated around 4500 B.C. To this day, Mesopotamian daggers and Roman ship materials remain intact. “Bronze lasts forever, basically,” Warren said. “Doesn’t corrode, doesn’t rust like steel does.”
“If we had some kind of cataclysm, and all the buildings fell and all the steel rusted, the bronze would still be here,” he added. “It’s this incredible material. I always have this in my mind: ‘This is going to last pretty much forever. It has to be as good as it can possibly be.’”
“It is going to be something to behold,” Roscoe Barnes III concurred.
For more information on the Natchez U.S. Colored Troops Monument Project, visit natchezusctmonument.com.