Separate but Equal? Gettysburg’s Lincoln Cemetery

By Savannah Labbe ’19

The most well-known cemetery in Gettysburg is, of course, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Another cemetery in Gettysburg that receives less attention is the Lincoln Cemetery, currently located on Lincoln Lane. This small cemetery is home to around thirty Civil War veterans. Why were these men not buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, a cemetery created for all veterans of the Civil War? The answer: they were African-American. While they were allowed to fight for their freedom, even in death, these men were still not equal to the white soldiers they fought beside.

Some Union soldiers were willing to fight for abolition, but many did not believe in racial equality, even in the army ranks. The most famous of example of this is General William T. Sherman, who detested the freed slaves who followed his army as it marched through Georgia and South Carolina. He also had to be forced by Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers in his army, remarking in his memoirs that his army “preferred white soldiers.” The Civil War was also often seen in its immediate aftermath as a war about reunion, with the abolition of slavery being a necessary side effect. Burying African Americans next to white soldiers could therefore hamper reconciliation efforts between North and South, as cemeteries often became places of shared memory and reverence for both sides. With this in mind, it is not surprising that these veterans of the United Sates Colored Troops were not allowed in the main cemetery in Gettysburg, and another place for them to be buried was needed. The cemetery created to fill this need was what would eventually become Lincoln Cemetery.

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1866, a group was formed for the express purpose of finding a good place to bury the community’s African American veterans. This group was called the Sons of Good Will, and it originally had three members: Basil Biggs, Nelson Mathews, and Thomas Griegsby, all of whom were African American. Biggs was also involved in reinterring bodies in the Soldiers National Cemetery, hired as a laborer by the government. This was a very lucrative opportunity for Biggs and others who wished to make money to pay for all the property that had been destroyed during the battle. Perhaps his experience doing this spurred him to create a similar cemetery for African American veterans of the Civil War.

In 1867, the Sons of Good Will bought a half-acre of land in a neighborhood located in what is still known as the “third ward” of Gettysburg, where African Americans were required to live–attempts to move out of it were always denied by the local government. It was on the outskirts of town, and as such, its residents were always subject to getting their land taken away as the town expanded. A prominent landowner in this part of town, Eden Devan, sold the first plot of land to the society for $60, to be paid in two installments. Most of the land that the cemetery was created from was bought from African American members of the community, just like this first half acre. The cemetery came to be known as the Good Will cemetery after the society that founded it. It would eventually house not only the thirty USCT veterans but also many members of the African American community.

In 1906, the Lincoln Cemetery merged with the other black cemetery in town, which was located near the AME Zion Church. The church no longer could afford to maintain their cemetery and appealed to the Sons of Good Will for help. This led them to the decide to disinter and reinter all the bodies in the Good Will Cemetery, which now became the only African American cemetery in Gettysburg. In addition, the town wanted the land that AME Zion’s cemetery was located on, and they pushed for the consolidation of the two cemeteries. In 1916, after the Sons of Good Will ceased to exist, due to the death of most of the members, so some of the land on Good Will Cemetery sat was sold to Lincoln Lodge 145, was an African American Elks Lodge. The members of this organization became the cemetery’s caretaker, especially in 1920 after all of the lots were sold and entrusted to their care. This is how it came to be known as the Lincoln Cemetery. The Lincoln Lodge was responsible for the cemetery until around 1934, when its last member became incapable of caring for it. After that, the care of the cemetery fell into hands of concerned citizens and members of the community.

As no one in particular was in charge of the cemetery, it fell into disrepair. This was a common problem in African American cemeteries everywhere, and it followed a pattern of destroyed African American cemeteries in towns whose white cemeteries were kept in pristine condition. In many instances, this pattern continues today. An example of this is in Richmond, Virginia. The African American East End and Evergreen Cemeteries there are overgrown with many headstones knocked over, while the nearby Oakwood Cemetery is kept in good condition, as the Virginia government provides money to the Daughters of Confederate Veterans for its upkeep. In a similar situation, the Lincoln Cemetery became overgrown, so much so that one could hardly tell that it was there. Often, people used the cemetery for parking. Headstones were knocked over, and the cemetery became a mess.

In the 1970s, the Gettysburg College service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega cleaned up the cemetery as one of their projects. Eventually, care of the cemetery was given back to the AME Zion Church, which appealed to the town to help with maintenance. The town agreed. The Lincoln Cemetery Project Association was established in the late 1990s to help preserve the cemetery and raise awareness of its existence. Now, there is a locked fence around the cemetery due to concerns of vandalism and a lack of respect for those buried there. The association also holds an annual Memorial Day service complete with a parade, and the cemetery is in much better shape than it has been over the years. There are also waysides around it that provide interpretation in order to help people learn about the history of the cemetery and understand that even though the USCT veterans buried in the cemetery fought for freedom and citizenship, they were still segregated in death. The Lincoln Cemetery Project Association works to preserve not only the cemetery itself but also its memory and the memory of African Americans who fought in the Civil War

This cemetery is interesting for many reasons, one of them being the fact that, despite its existence, two African American Civil War veterans were still allowed to be buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Why were these two allowed to be buried here when everyone else was denied access? One of these men was Charles Parker, a member of the 3rd USCT. He was originally buried in Yellow Hill Cemetery until 1936, when he was reinterred in the Soldier’s National Cemetery. Yellow Hill Cemetery was located in Butler Township, and the surrounding area was home to a thriving African American community until it was abandoned in the 1920s. The cemetery was left without anyone to care for it, so many of the bodies in the cemetery were moved to the Lincoln Cemetery. Parker’s reinternment was part of Worker’s Progress Administration project to locate all the graves of Civil War soldiers. In Gettysburg and the surrounding towns, this job was taken up by Henry Stewart. When Stewart found Parker’s body, the Yellow Hill Cemetery was in serious disrepair, so the decision was made to move him to Soldier’s National Cemetery.

The story of Henry Gooden, the other African American man buried in the Soldier’s National Cemetery, is more perplexing, however. Gooden died in 1876 and was reinterred in 1884. This raises many questions as to why Gooden was allowed to be buried there when only one other African American man was. There is scant information on Gooden. Perhaps he especially distinguished himself during the war. It seems unlikely that he would have been allowed to be buried there without anyone really noticing or caring, given the racial feelings of the day. Gooden was buried in the United States Regulars plot in Section D, as part of the prominent Civil War section of the cemetery, alongside white soldiers, with the same granite marker. He was given an equal place among the rest of the dead; the records do not provide an answer as to why this was so. Gooden’s case is an unusual one, as he was the one of the very few that was granted equality in death. In contrast, the African Americans in Lincoln Cemetery remained unequal, have largely been forgotten about, left behind by history, in a cemetery that was poorly taken care of for far too long. These men were good enough to fight beside white men, but only two were good enough to be buried beside them, a perfect example that freedom did not mean equality.


Sources

“Area Speaker Invited to Centre County.” September 17, 2005. The Gettysburg Times.

FREED WESSLER, SETH. “BLACK DEATHS MATTER. (Cover story).” Nation 301, no. 18 (November 2, 2015): 20-25. Accessed March 4, 2018.

History.” Sons of Goodwill/Lincoln Cemetery. Last modified 2013. Accessed February 24, 2018.

Myers, Betty Dorsey. Segregation in Death. Gettysburg, PA: Lincoln Cemetery Project Association, 2001.

“Salute to USCT Set for November 19.” November 12, 2008. The Gettysburg Times.

Sherman, William T. The Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889.

“1,565 Graves of Civil War Veterans Located.” October 17, 1936. The Gettysburg Times.

The Real 54th Massachusetts: Dr. Douglas Egerton on the Lives of United States Colored Troops in Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Nick Tarchis ’18

Two weeks ago, the Gettysburg College community was treated to a lecture by special guest Douglas Egerton, one of the recipients of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Dr. Egerton works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches courses on race in 19th century America. Egerton’s most recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America chronicles the lives of ten men from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Troops, documenting their experiences from the pre-war era to their deaths.

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Dr. Douglas Egerton. Photo courtesy of lemoyne.edu.

Audience members were most familiar with these regiments because of the 1989 movie “Glory,” which depicts the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops of the 54th, culminating in their famous assault on Fort Wagner. Egerton’s lecture, however, examined the lives of Shaw’s soldiers—rather than Shaw himself—and the country’s attitudes toward United States Colored Troops. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans began to ask if black citizens and former slaves would be willing to fight for a country in which many of them felt unwanted. In the South, the Confederate Government was quick to declare that, if captured, black soldiers would be enslaved and officers would be executed. While this policy would change later on, there was still a fair share of worry in the North that black troops would run from the battlefield and abandon their posts because of this Confederate threat. This was the crux of Egerton’s lecture: looking at the how the soldiers were depicted versus how they acted and examining the impact that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had on public perception.

The history students in the crowd might have recognized Egerton’s work as “history from the bottom up.” Instead of emulating the film “Glory,” which focuses more on Shaw than the black soldiers, Egerton discussed the rank-and-file and told their stories through their own experiences. This confronts a large issue in the history field, in which many choose to study presidents, generals, kings, and other important leaders rather than opt for the harder story to tell: that of the common man. While historians such as James McPherson and Earl Hess have examined why soldiers enlisted, Egerton studies the motivations of a more marginalized group who faced institutional oppression and still chose to fight.

Egerton worked to emphasize that, unlike in the movie “Glory,” not all USCTs were escaped slaves. Those who joined the ranks as freeman—including Frederick Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis—saw a palpable public outcry against black troops and sought a way to prove that they would not turn and run in a battle but would fight just as bravely as white troops. This was an opportunity to reunite the nation and make it a better place for themselves and their families. For those who had escaped from bondage, however, the motivation was simple: fight for the families back in the South. Many who escaped had left someone behind, be it a wife, son, or daughter, and they wanted to ensure that they could secure their loved ones’ freedom and build a nation they could call their own.

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Print depicting the 54th Massachusetts charging Fort Wagner. Photo via Library of Congress.

Edgerton’s lecture, like his book, had a melancholy ending, as many of the troops who survived the war and served with distinction were not able to achieve the goals they had hoped. Many of them lived long lives and were able to reunite with their families, but while the South was defeated, the nation restored, and the 14th amendment ratified, some troops still faced persecution after the war. Jim Crow soon took the place of slave drivers and catchers. As for their place in memory, the soldiers were quickly forgotten by history. When the United States returned to war in the 1890s, the 1910s, and 1940s, the same issues surfaced again. The public forgot about the heroism of the USCT regiments that fought during the Civil War and again believed that black soldiers would surely run at the first sight of combat and prove to be a liability on the battlefield. “Glory” does not necessarily help combat this image, as a majority of the film is told through Shaw’s perspective and portrays many of the soldiers as runaway slaves with little to no motivation. Thankfully, historians like Dr. Egerton are working to tell these men’s stories and ensure that they will have their rightful place in American memory.

We All Bleed Red: African American Soldiers and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Years before the United States military was officially desegregated in 1948, African Americans fought alongside white men in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. Most African American men that fought for the Union in the Civil War did so in United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) units, separated from white men. Because of this segregation, many black men, such as Andrew J. Williams of Industry, Maine, left home to find and fight with a U.S.C.T. regiment. Williams would not be accepted into a Maine regiment, or at least so he thought. His brother, Aaron E. Williams, decided to try his luck with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a white regiment. He mustered in on December 26, 1863 and served in Company G. He was not the only African American to join the 1st Maine, either. Lemuel Carter and Franklin Freemont from Bath joined, as did George Freeman from Brunswick. Carter and Freeman enlisted on January 5, 1864, while Freemont enlisted the day prior. They were all members of Company M.

These African American soldiers fought alongside white men in the fierce battles that the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery took a part in. The 1st Maine started off as an infantry regiment, the 18th Maine. However, they had spent so much time drilling with artillery that they were re-designated as an artillery regiment on January 6, 1863. While the 1st Maine had been mustered into service on August 21, 1862, they had not left the state come May of 1864. They finally left later that month and saw their first action near Fredericksburg on May 19, 1864. The 1st Maine was involved in many of the well-known battles of the later war, but they are best known for their efforts at Petersburg, where they were responsible for breaking through the center of the Confederate lines on the first day of the siege. They did not have much battlefield experience and had little idea what it would mean to charge towards the center of a heavily fortified line. They soon found out. The 1st Maine lost over 50 percent of its men, killed and wounded, in this charge, the single greatest loss of any regiment in one action; 632 out of 900 men became casualties. The regiment also participated in the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, the last major battle of the war in Virginia, where they captured many prisoners three days before Robert E. Lee surrendered. They returned to Bangor and were mustered out on June 6, 1865, with only 1,761 men returning from the original 2,202.

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Soldiers surround a bombproof shelter during the siege of Petersburg, 1864. Photo via Library of Congress.

 

One of the men that did not return with the 1st Maine was Aaron Williams. He fought at Petersburg and took a gunshot wound to the arm on June 18, 1864. He survived these wounds only to die on January 21, 1865. Sources differ on how he died. According to the history of the 1st Maine, entitled The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865, Williams died of “exhaustion from overwork.” Other sources report that he died of disease. Lemuel Carter survived the war, dying in Brunswick, Maine on January 31, 1891. Freeman also died in Brunswick, Maine on January 8, 1887. He had survived gunshot wounds to the hand and foot at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Freemont survived the war as well. While these men “were of African descent,” as the history of the 1st Maine puts it, they were still allowed to fight alongside white men, and one even sacrificed his life for the Union cause. The white men of the 1st Maine were aware that Williams and the others were African American but accepted them anyways, knowing that they would fight and die just like any other man in the regiment. The story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery is a curious and rare one, but it is proof that men of all races fought alongside each other in the Civil War, and that race does not make a difference in a soldier’s ability to fight and die for his country.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the 1st Maine provides a lot to think about in terms of race relations during the Civil War. Although some African Americans could pass as white and join white regiments, this was not the case with the men of the 1st Maine, as their enlistment papers listed their complexions as dark or black. The recruiter knew they were African American, as did the men who fought alongside them. These African American men served in a combat role and were not simply laborers, as two of them were wounded. Regardless of whether or not they were strictly combat soldiers, however, they still shed blood or otherwise sacrificed for the Union cause.

It is hard to tell how the white men of the 1st Maine felt about having African American men in their regiment; just because they were allowed to fight does not mean they were liked or respected. In addition, Northerners could be just as prejudiced and racist as Southerners during this time period. For example, Walt Whitman, a prominent New York poet, believed that African Americans were less evolved and did not deserve the right to vote, even comparing them to baboons. The Maine men might have welcomed African Americans into their ranks if only in the hope that they would be the ones to take a bullet first. Thus, the fact that the 1st Maine was unique in allowing African American men to fight does not necessarily mean these soldiers were necessarily more tolerant and accepting than the rest of the country.

However, it may be the case that the Maine men were more progressive than the rest of the country. Perhaps because there were so few African Americans living in Maine at the time race was not as big of an issue. Either way, it is important to ask just how these men managed to be accepted into a white regiment at a time when this was strictly forbidden. What made these men so different and special that their recruiting officer was willing to risk going against policy and potentially threaten the cohesion of the regiment by allowing them into the ranks? One may never know how these four African Americans became part of a white regiment, but these questions are important ones to ask, and they complicate the traditional narrative of African American involvement in the Civil War.


Sources

Frank, Michael. “Whitman’s Multitudes, For Better and Worse.” Nytimes.Com. Last modified 2005. Accessed September 27, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/18/books/whitmans-multitudes-for-better-and-worse.html?mcubz=0.

Hudziak, Mark. “On June 18, 1864, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Suffered the Greatest Single Loss of Any Federal Unit.” America’s Civil War vol. 10, no. 2 (May 1997): 8. Accessed September 9, 2017. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9703301614&site=eds-live.

Shaw, Horace H, and Charles J House. The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865. Salem, MA: Higginson, 1903. Accessed September 10, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=G50dAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA330&lpg=PA330&dq=aaron+williams+first+maine+heavy+artillery&source=bl&ots=_DqHEjMp75&sig=CuKJnxLMPjKofZKbteu6bfzTEvs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR2Ir-oYnWAhWJx4MKHQ8CDikQ6AEIRjAI#v=onepage&q=aaron%20williams%20first%20maine%20heavy%20artillery&f=false.

Swartz, Brian. “Some Mainers Broke Racial Barriers In ‘White’ State Regiments.” Bangor Daily News. Last modified 2014. Accessed September 10, 2017. http://bangordailynews.com/2013/12/11/news/some-mainers-broke-racial-barriers-in-white-state-regiments/?ref=comments.