Tradition of Excellence

I'm NOT the author of the articles. I'm chronicling the stories you may have missed.

Honors at last for black veterans

with one comment

By JAMES MERRIWEATHER • The News Journal

bildeHans Reigle is a Civil War history buff with a particular interest in cemeteries.

His research has taken him as far as Georgia’s Andersonville National Cemetery, burial site for 13,000 Union soldiers who were among 45,000 imprisoned at Fort Sumter during the Civil War.

But it was a discovery he made just a few stone’s throws from his Wyoming home that has been most gratifying.

About 18 months ago, Reigle’s children had just finished playing soccer at Fred Fifer Middle School in Camden. The fields there back up to Zion AME Church, which was started in 1845 by a group of free blacks. Reigle decided to take a look at the cemetery, established three years after the church was founded.

Among the chaotic patter of grave markers, something jumped out.

“I noticed two grave markers that you could tell were Civil War-era federal gravestones,” Reigle said.

The graves belonged to two men, Pvts. Caleb Fisher and Abraham Gibbs, the former having served in the 8th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops and the latter having served with the 41st Regiment of the same all-black organization.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is something special,’ and I started doing research,” he said. “It’s a great story. It’s totally awesome.”

To mark Armed Forces Day for all military men and women and to pay tribute to the two Civil War soldiers, Reigle organized a ceremony, “A Tribute to Forgotten Heroes,” that will begin at 11 a.m. today inside Zion AME Church, 20 Center St., then move to the cemetery.

Reigle, 54, a retired C-5 pilot, has arranged for a flyover by a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Dover Air Force Base and recruited a group of Civil War re-enactors headed by Glenn Layton of Wyoming to offer a 21-gun salute to the fallen soldiers.

“It’s all about 150 years ago,” Reigle said, noting that Fisher and Gibbs were among — by the government’s count — about 186,000 black men who took up arms for the Union during the Civil War. “These guys could not have pictured us here, doing what we’re doing. Now, they are getting the sendoff they deserve, the honors they’ve earned.”

Delaware had stayed with the Union for the war, but slavery remained legal here. Because of divided loyalties, the First State raised no black regiments after they were authorized by the federal government, but official federal records list 954 black Delawareans who served with regiments formed in other states.

Reigle’s find earned kudos from military historian George W. Contant of Dover, who over the past decade has identified almost 1,900 black Civil War veterans — including 340 sailors — who listed Delaware as their home state when they enlisted.

Contant said the discovery at Zion AME is noteworthy because it established the final resting places of two more black veterans of the Civil War.

“To me, it’s a big deal for several reasons,” said Contant, 53, a Palmyra, N.Y., native who stayed in Dover after completing a six-year military stint at Dover Air Force Base in 1983.

“It’s essentially an excluded history in this state, as it is in most parts of the country. We’re officially credited with 954 African-American men who served in the federal Army from Delaware; the problem is, nobody can tell you who they are. This number is acknowledged by everyone, but no one knows the names, and that goes all the way to the National Archives.”

According to research conducted by Reigle and Contant, Fisher enlisted as a substitute for a white man who paid him as a means of skipping his own duty, a practice that was common and legal in the days after the northern states were assigned recruitment quotas. Those states failing to meet their goals were required to initiate a draft to meet the quota.

War and racial substitution

While raising no regiments of their own, Delaware officials were all too happy to sign up black volunteers and recruits to the cause, Contant said. At one point in 1863, he said, Delaware counted 1,100 blacks and just 10 white men among new enlistees.

Still, the state failed to meet its quota, even as recruiters from as far away as Indiana traveled here to recruit blacks for military duty. Hundreds of black Delawareans found their way to the 54th Massachusetts, the most famous black Civil War unit by virtue of its depiction in “Glory,” a 1989 film featuring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.

“Draft agents were hired to register everyone, and that set off quite a firestorm,” Contant said. “In western Kent County, it was so bad that the draft agent in the area of Sandtown and his family had their lives threatened. They had to pull in troops from Maryland to occupy the western part of the county while the draft agents did their work.

“There was a big drive to enlist men, and the government eyed the African-American population as one they wanted to target, but not for reasons that you would be very pleased about. A document from a regional enlistment agent to Delaware government officials discussed that, if they could get blacks to enlist, it would free up jobs for poor whites.”

Fisher ended up with the 8th Regiment of the of U.S. Colored Troops, organized at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, from Sept. 22 to Dec. 4, 1863. His unit was at the Battle of Olustee in Florida on Feb. 20, 1864, which marked a notable defeat for a Union expedition intended to secure Union enclaves, cut rebel supply routes and recruit black soldiers, according to the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program.

Gibbs’ rank was listed as musician on enlistment with the 41st Regiment, which was organized at Camp William Penn from Sept. 30 to Dec. 7, 1864. The regiment saw duty at several battles in Virginia, and, along with the 8th Regiment and other black units, pursued Gen. Robert E. Lee for three days before the general surrendered on behalf of the Confederacy on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox. Reigle said his research indicated that Gibbs’ father was an Underground Railroad conductor for Harriet Tubman, ushering runaway slaves to free states in the North.

Both privates returned home after their units were disbanded at the war’s end.

Other graves might exist

Reigle wonders whether the two men are the only Civil War veterans buried at Zion AME, whose cemetery was established in 1848 and expanded in 1863 and 1923.

Because the cemetery dates back 160 years, Reigle figures that lots of unmarked turf means that many headstones were lost over the years, raising the possibility that other never-to-be-identified soldiers might be buried there.

Fifer Middle School is on the same property as Reigle’s former middle school. He said he remembers broken headstones piled up at one point on land between the school and the church and speculates they may once have marked graves at Zion AME’s cemetery.

Several members of the Gibbs family are buried in the cemetery — including Abraham Gibbs’ son, Carl, buried there in April 1939 — and Reigle said he expects some members of the family to attend today’s ceremony.

Rosa Smith, interim pastor of Zion AME, said she has been at the church only eight months and couldn’t speculate on the number of unmarked graves that might be in the cemetery.

“I think its marvelous. It’s educational,” she said of today’s ceremony.

Beyond a love of history, Contant, who has written two books about the Civil War, says he has a personal connection that fuels his efforts to get out the story on black Civil War veterans. His maternal great-grandfather, John Geer, was part of a unit, the 98th New York Infantry, that joined black units in sacking Richmond, the Confederate capital, and routing Lee in the last days of the war.

“His regiment was actually at the outskirts of Richmond, helping units enter, when the decision was made to allow African-American units to go in and take the city,” he said. “My great-grandfather’s unit was the first white unit to enter Richmond.”

A personal fight for freedom

Contant said his efforts now are aimed at getting a wealth of research findings in “a decent index of who, what, when, where and how,” provide copies to libraries and archives, then pass it off to somebody — perhaps a master’s degree candidate — “who could run with it and get it out in actual stories, the things they and their families went through.”

“These men were not interested in helping Uncle Sam fill his draft quota,” said Contant, who credits black soldiers and sailors for tipping the war in the Union’s favor. “These men were interested in finally being given a chance to directly fight for their own freedom. Like Caucasian men, there were some who needed money, some who were bored and some who just wanted to be part of history. But most were there to gain their own freedom and prove once again that they were just as good as any other man, any other race. ‘We’re not slovenly, lazy, unintelligent and unusable in anything but menial labor.’

“I’m happy to be part of this effort to honor these men, and I also hope it will spark interest and inspire the African-American community to take a look and decide how important this history is.”

Advertisements

Written by Symphony

May 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Posted in Honors, Military

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you so much for honoring these outstanding men.
    My family started a church in Columbia, Tennessee in 1843, Mt.Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church, the oldest black Baptist church in Tennessee. I dramatized the story of the founders , my great great grand parents Cyrus and Eliza and their sons Israel and Simpse in my play The Will (performed in 2008 at Idlewild, Michigan). In the play, it’s 1866 and Israel and Simpse have just returned from the Civil War where they fought at the Battle of Nashville among others. They want to be treated as full fledged citizens and given the same respect accorded returning white soldiers. I applaud your tribute to these “Forgotten Heroes.”
    Sincerely,
    Sandra Seaton

    Sandra

    May 19, 2009 at 7:28 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: