Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chambersburg's African-American Civil War Veterans

The Mt. Vernon and Lebanon Cemeteries in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, are the final resting place of over 50 African-American Civil War veterans.  In Spring 2010, Shippensburg University history majors under the direction of Steven Burg set about the task of recovering as much of their life stories as possible.  The result is the book Dum Spiro, Spero: Chambersburg's Black Civil War Soldiers and Sailors, published under the auspices of the Shippensburg University Center for Applied History.  Today many still remember hostility to returning Vietnam War soldiers, but the greatest disrespect for U.S. veterans was unquestionably that shown to African-Americans in earlier times, who had to battle racism during and even after their military service.

Much of the material on the actual lives of the soldiers is scanty, with pension files as the most commonly cited source.  Because of this, we usually know more about their lives after the war than we do before.  We also know their units, and thus where they fought.  At the time of the Civil War, Chambersburg's Franklin County had the highest percentage of African-Americans in Pennsylvania, and the area around Green Township was even known as "Little Africa."  Many of the veterans were born into slavery, and perhaps escaped to Franklin County via the Underground Railroad.  Most were foot soldiers, though George Tall was in the navy and Ebenezer Massey in the drum and bugle corps.  The Siege of Petersburg which ended the war, the Battle of Honey Hill in Georgia, and sentry duty at Point Lookout POW camp were common scenes of action, but two of the men, David Hogan and David Kelly, wound up patrolling the Rio Grande.

The book includes sixteen brief essays on what is known of a soldier and the context for their individual lives and service.  An appendix includes an additional 35 capsule biographies.  As far as I can see, the book has three potential audiences.  One is those interested in the local history of Franklin County, especially regional Civil War history.  Another is history educators interested in what such a class research project might look like.  Finally, those with professional academic interests in the topic might find uses for some of it, such as for developing prosopography.

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