These are my heroes. A few years back I took a bike ride through Ypsilanti’s Highland Cemetery. I had heard that there was a monument to Civil War soldiers, it was a nice day and I ended up there more as a destination for a ride rather than as a destination in of itself. I got to the monument pictured above and read on its base “They Died To Make Our Country Free”. What a remarkable thing I thought. It didn’t say to restore the Union or to make or country freer, or to live up to its constitution (which itself helped to codify slavery), or anything like that. It said to make free, meaning it was unfree. Not a popular thing to say, even today, when we would like to think that slavery was endorsed only by the Southern states rather than by the whole of the Federal Government.
I looked around at the graves and noticed some with the marking “102 USCT”. I knew that meant “United States Colored Troops”, but more than that I did not know. Also remarkable, they were buried among the white veterans on the Civil and other wars. What was the 102 USCT? Why were they buried here under this statue among other, white, soldiers. Above all, who were these men? So began an investigation, perhaps an obsession, into the black men of Ypsilanti who would join in, what they surely viewed as, a war of liberation to destroy slavery and free their people.
Since then I have spent untold hours in archives, deeds offices, newspaper stacks, libraries and searching the streets to see if any of their homes still stand. Whatever tangible connection I could find to them. Over 70 black men from Ypsilanti, or around 80% of the listed adult male black population (which was surely higher than recorded), would join after the army was opened up to blacks in the Spring of 1863 (Louisiana, Missouri and South Carolina had earlier, local, recruitments). Almost all of them the First Michigan Colored Infantry, later 102nd United States Colored Troops.
Around twelve men, impatient with the lack of progress in raising a regiment in Michigan, joined the first regiments in the country to be raised: the deservedly famous 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Massachusetts, the seat of abolitionism with a Radical Governor, refused to add “colored” to the name of the regiment. These men would see and endure the unimaginable. Including two who would be sent to the dreadful Andersonville Prison, one of whom, Charles August, would die there. The heroic, but doomed assault on Fort Wagner was the defining public moment for black participation in the war. Men who lived not three blocks from me would storm its parapets only to be driven back with huge losses.
There is so much more to say on who these men were, where they came from and what it says about how some blacks viewed the war. For me it has been a window onto world I had heard of, but could never really define. Now I see it, if not clearly, than in more detail than I thought possible. My curiosity has been peaked and I don’t know how to stop. Any one who knows me, often to their annoyance, knows it can be my favored topic of conversation.
I would like to rescue these men from the obscurity racism pushed them into, from the obscurity of time and class as well. They deserve to be known, to be understood. They are a vital, vibrant link in the revolutionary tradition of the United States. They are genuine heroes; soldiers of black, of human, liberation.
I went to Highland again last Thursday. A perfect late fall day. The leaves have peaked and everywhere among the trees a golden snow was falling. A quiet day in the cemetery after the tumult of the election’s final week. I found myself wishing I could have told them that on Tuesday the United States elected a black President. I wonder what they would have said.
Jeremiah Snively joined the Regiment at the age of 19 in January, 1864. He lived in Ypsilanti after, working as a day laborer. His grave marker is one of several new markers bought by a kind individual to replace the deteriorated originals.
Elias Rouse most probably came from a slave family in Kentucky, listed as a mulatto, he may have been the child of his mother’s Master or one of his children. What I know about his early life is sketchy. He would end up in Chatham, Ontario which along with Buxton was a center for runaway slaves, free blacks who could no longer abide the racism in the “free states” and radical black abolitionists organizing to strike a blow against slavery. It was in Chatham that John Brown met with people like Martin Delaney and John De Baptiste (who would go on to lead recruitment to the 102nd) hoping to win support in the colony of exiles for his armed foray into the South.
Elias would then end up in Ypsilanti where, with William Scott, he would leave for Massachusetts to join Company K of the 54th Massachusetts in May, 1863. Meaning as soon as he was able to join a regiment he went. He had, perhaps, been waiting for that day all of his life. Elias was wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner but stayed with the “Glory” Regiment through its entire service. William Scott would, like so many others, fall ill and was discharged within six months of joining. Many more members of the 102 and other black regiments died of disease than of combat.
Elias returned to Ypsilanti after the war where he would marry the widow of his comade John Gay of the 102 USCT, Mary Gay. The Ypsilanti men who had gone to join the 54th and 55th would see their Ypsilanti friends of the 102 later in the war. All these Regiments were stationed together in Florida and South Carolina at one time or another. They would fight together at Deveaux Kneck, Boykon’s Landing and Honey Hill there. Several raids would destroy hundreds of miles of Confederate rail and infrastructure.
John Gay died of disease in South Carolina in 1865. He is buried there. Elias would raise John’s children with Mary and they would have some of their own.
He died in 1899, and is listed in the records as a peddler and day laborer. His house with Mary still stands, she may have bought it with her Widow’s Pension in the 1870’s. I would love to know more about Elias and will continue to try to track down what I might about him. To see a photograph of him, to see his face, would be a deeply satisfying thrill.
Comrades in life and in death.
Henry Thornton is mostly a mystery. I know he joined the Regiment later, in October 1864, at the age of 38. But other than that I don’t know much about him. This is a Grand Army of the Republic marker from the time of his death. He would probably have been a member. There were two black GAR branches in Michigan, one of them named after John Brown.
Either this is David York’s grave with his brother George York’s death date or it is George’s grave with David’s name on it. Both had come to Ypsilanti with their family from Kentucky in the 1850’s. George enlisted at the age of 15 with his 18 year old brother David in October 1863. George fell ill and died tragically without ever leaving Ypsilanti. David would return to Ypsilanti where he married a women named Mary, have half a dozen children and lived a couple of blocks from where I live now. A laborer he died after the turn of the century.
Benjamin Harper, originally from Indiana joined the Regiment in November, 1863 at the age of 20 and served the life of the unit. He saw battle in Florida and participated in raids into the Carolina interior that destroyed plantations, skirmished with Confederates and liberated slaves. His comrade of the same company was Jesse Oliver from Ypsilanti. He would die of wounds received at the Battle of Honey Hill. After the war Benjamin would live next to the Yorks and marry a woman named Martha from Canada. He would die around the turn of the century.
Percival Murphy joined the Regiment at the age of 39 in February, 1864. Originally from Ohio he is listed as “mulatto”. Percival had come to Ypsilanti some years before the war. The town had for many years, since the Second Great Revival, had a reputation as relatively tolerant. Its proximity to Canada would mean that it would also be a way stop for black folks on their journey to that, more hospitable, country. Many young black men show up on the records before the war as single farm laborers boarding on white farmsteads. Percival also lived not far from me where he raised a family with his wife Catherine, originally from Delaware.
Thomas Davis joined at the ripe old age of 44 near the end of the war. Originally from Virginia he had also come to Ypsilanti some years before the war where he worked on farms with his brother Daniel. He would marry Margaret who would die young. He would later marry Elizabeth and work as a peddler. He died on April 13, 1895.
There are many more names and stories to share. These are just a few of the men who would join the freedom struggle from Ypsilanti. Others, like William Casey and Edmund Lowe, would become leaders of their community. Many more came home from victory to the harsh reality of an unfinished revolution; continued racial discrimination and violence and the exploitation inherent to their class. All of them deserve mention. Surely, none were angels and just as surely very few of us will ever do more for freedom than they.