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History in the marking

June 8, 2002 11:29 PM
History in the marking

By Roger Ruthhart, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

It's a green expanse more than 200 feet long. For days and weeks, it lies disturbed only by the wind blowing through the grass or the occasional squirrel scampering down an old oak tree.

When a visitor does look across this quiet space, his gaze is broken only by a half-dozen or so monoliths providing a reminder of days long, long ago.

It's a special place among many special places at historic Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island. This 50-foot wide strip is the section of land where grave sites were cheaper and where many African Americans and whites of modest means were buried from 1855 until the 1920s. Chippiannock was one of the few cemeteries in the area to accept blacks.

Many residents of this section lie long forgotten, their graves unmarked by any stone, the few guests who come here shuffling by -- unknowing -- overhead.

Among the forgotten at Chippiannock are nine American heroes -- black men who served their country and fought to eliminate slavery during the Civil War. Most were buried more than 100 years ago. All have been long-ago forgotten. There is no reminder, since their graves were marked with a long-lost wooden marker or no marker at all.

Until now.

After years of research by the staff at Chippiannock Cemetery and The Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch, these long-forgotten heroes again will be remembered.

The research produced enough information on these men to have the Department of Veterans Affairs provide military headstones for seven of the nine Civil War veterans.

A February 1879 Act of Congress extended the privilege of government-provided headstones to soldiers buried in private cemeteries. All nine will be honored in a special memorial ceremony, titled Black Heroes Carved in Stone, at 10 a.m. Saturday at the cemetery.

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Approximately 185,000 men, including officers who were not African American, served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. This number did not include an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 civilians who served in the U.S. Colored Troops (as well as with all-white troops) as scouts, spies, cooks, corpsmen, nurses, and teamsters. For most, their opportunity to serve did not come until late in the war.

In the early years, free blacks in the North and newly escaped slaves from the South sought to join the Union army, but were told it was a white man's war. By 1862, President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department realized they had underestimated the strength and determination of the Confederate forces, but still refused to alter the policy.

The plan was strategic -- President Lincoln was trying to preserve the Union without dealing with the question of slavery because he did not want to alienate the border slave states that remained in the Union.

In July 1862, Brig. Gen. John W. Phelps resigned when permission to organize three regiments from refugees in Louisiana was denied. In August 1862, Gen. Jim Lane organized a black regiment in Kansas. The regiment fought its first battle in October at Island Mound, Mo., before it was mustered into federal service.

The second battle involving black troops did not come until Jan. 26, 1863, when the First South Carolina Colored Volunteers fought in Florida.

Also in August, Gen. Benjamin Butler quickly mustered into federal service the first, second and third regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards. It was reported that the commanders of the units had offered their services to the Confederacy first and were turned down. The leaders, all men of color, were wealthy, well-educated property owners.

During the summer and fall of 1862, President Lincoln gradually changed his view of the war. In late August, in a major policy shift, the War Department officially sanctioned the recruitment of blacks, saying, ``All slaves admitted into the military service, together with their wives and children, were declared forever free.''

In January 1863, Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to form the first regiment of African American troops. On March 26, 1863, the Secretary of War issued an order directing the organization of black regiments in the Mississippi Valley.

In May, the Bureau of Colored Troops was organized to handle recruitment. On Dec. 3, 1864, orders were issued forming the 25th United State Army Corps -- the first and only Army corps in the country's history made up almost entirely of black infantry regiments. There were 30 infantry regiments, two black cavalry regiments, and a battery of U.S. Colored Light Artillery assigned to the corps.

-- --

Most of the veterans laid to rest in Rock Island were from Kentucky or Virginia, with one each from Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi. The first of the nine to enlist was Samuel Thurman on Nov. 29, 1863.

Two men will remain in unmarked graves for now because not enough information has been gathered on them to secure a headstone. There were 20 Thomas Clarks who served in black regiments during the war and 12 named Levi Jackson. Research on these two is continuing.

African American enlistees came from 35 states and territories, the District of Columbia, Canada and the Caribbean, and some were born in Africa. Most were laborers, but many were skilled farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, groomers and teamsters.

Between 160 and 170 regiments of infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery and light artillery batteries were organized. U.S. Colored Troops participated in 449 engagements including 39 major battles.

By the end of the war, there were at least 87 African American officers in the U.S. Army. Thirteen U.S. Colored Troops were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

All the veterans buried at Chippiannock were from the South, which is not a surprise since Southern and border states supplied the largest numbers of black soldiers. Louisiana furnished 24,000 men; Kentucky 23,000 men; Tennessee 20,000 men and Mississippi 18,000.

The African American regiments were in the fight to the end. On April 9, 1865, three U.S. Colored Infantry regiments were among those positioned along an advance line of 17 Union regiments that moved from the west toward Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia to prevent Confederate forces from escaping to the west.

The 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment from Missouri participated in the last major engagement of the Civil War at Palmetto Ranch, Texas, on May 15, 1865 -- more than a month after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

-- --

After the war ended, many of the soldiers found their way north to start a new life. There is no record of why the nine black veterans to be honored at Chippiannock Cemetery came back to Rock Island.

We can speculate at least that Louis Martin and Lee Rogers, who served on guard duty with the 108th USCT at the Confederate Rock Island Prison Barracks on Arsenal Island, became familiar with the area while stationed there and returned after the war.

Some died here surrounding by families, and some did not.

The area of Chippiannock Cemetery where the nine are buried was less expensive, only individual lots were sold there, and the dead were buried in the order they died. There were no family plots and family monuments were unusual at the time, according to Greg Vogele, Chippiannock superintendent.

``These people probably were buried without markers. This is probably the first time these graves have been marked,'' Mr. Vogele said of the veterans' grave sites.

Mr. Vogele said his father, who was superintendent before him, told him there was no ``care'' sold for this portion of the cemetery. It was up to families to maintain the individual graves.

``He used to talk about times way back when the grass would grow this tall,'' Mr. Vogele said, holding a hand shoulder high. ``There would be paths through the grass to get to different graves.''

Chippiannock Cemetery was so old that it was grandfathered out of the Community Care Act, but today with the help of modern machinery, all the grave sites are maintained.

``We don't say that we provide care for all the graves, but we do,'' Mr. Vogele explained. ``Now we have an endowment fund that provides for the care of the cemetery. We don't distinguish between areas of the cemetery any more. Today, we strive to provide for the preservation and care of the entire cemetery.''

One thing certainly will change following Saturday's official memorial service -- Chippiannock trivia. No longer will teachers be able to send classes off to find the tombstone of George Kelly, ``the only black veteran with a tombstone in the cemetery.''

Mr. Vogele also hopes the information that has been discovered on these black veterans will encourage the documentation of more black history in the cemetery.

``The black history needs to be recorded, even if it doesn't go back to the Civil War,'' he said. ``We still don't know about all of these others buried around them.''

Coming Monday: Meet Albert Harper, one of the ``colorful characters'' of Rock Island.

Copyright 2002, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.

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