Advocates set out on a mission to provide grave markers for freed slaves who fought
The small plot of land where they are buried is overshadowed by multimillion-dollar condos and a private marina — symbols of the transformation that has occurred in Hilton Head over the last 50 years, changing the island from a predominantly black town to a city of gated communities for the wealthy.
But for Howard Wright, 57, the great-great-grandson of a former slave who fought in the war, Talbird Cemetery is part of his family’s heritage and, he said, an integral part of U.S. history that should not be forgotten.
So he has set out on a mission to get the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide headstones for the more than 3,000 blacks in South Carolina who served in what was called the U.S. Colored Troops. In recent months, he has received 300 markers from the department, including one for his great-great-grandfather, Caesar Kirk-Jones, who died in 1903 at age 74.
‘They had more at stake’
“History has been rewritten when it comes to the legacy of the Colored Troops,” said Wright, a historian who founded the Sankofa Restoration Project. “They came in fighting with their weapons blazing. They had more at stake than anyone else, and they turned around the destiny of this country.”Wright has spent 25 years researching the histories of the men buried at Talbird Cemetery as well as more than 1,000 other black Civil War soldiers at some 100 similar small cemeteries in Beaufort County, S.C. More than 1,000 black soldiers are buried in a formerly segregated section of the Beaufort National Cemetery.
According to Wright, about 300 black soldiers have yet to be identified at Talbird, Hilton Head’s largest black cemetery. For the descendants to have relatives who died fighting in a war that ended slavery, it is considered an honor that they speak of with pride.
“Every black family in Hilton Head has someone buried here,” Wright said. “So, this is important to a lot of people.”
But Wright’s work does not stop there. His goal, he said, is to have veteran headstones placed on the graves of all 200,000 black Union veterans nationwide.
Wright said he began researching his ancestry in 1982 after the death of his grandmother.
Using military and census records, as well as genealogical materials, including records documenting the sale of people who had been slaves, he was able to track down the story of his great-great-grandfather, learning that he had been a member of 2nd Light Artillery Unit of the United States Colored Troops, formed in 1864.
The first headstone Wright received was for his great-great grandfather. The marble headstone is engraved with his name, birthday and date of death. The headstone also is inscribed with the name of the unit he served in.”After we found out we could get a headstone from the Veterans Administration for my grandfather, I made a proposal to them. I said, ‘What if someone had the records of all the Civil War soldiers who fought (for the Union) from South Carolina, particularly Beaufort County, would they be eligible to get a stone?’ ” They said, ‘If you can prove it, you can.’ And I said, ‘We have it.’ ”
It is the VA’s policy to furnish upon request a government headstone or marker for the grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world. There is no charge for the headstone.
The role of black soldiers in the Civil War has always been controversial, with advocates arguing that they have never received proper recognition.
At the beginning of the war in 1861, free blacks rushed to join the Union Army but were turned away because of a 1792 federal law barring free blacks from bearing arms for the Army. Though President Abraham Lincoln early on considered recruiting black troops, he feared that it would cause more states to secede from the Union.
But as the war raged on and fewer whites signed up, Congress passed a law in 1862 freeing slaves whose owners were fighting on the side of the Confederacy.
Shortly thereafter, Lincoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave freedom to all Confederate slaves and made them eligible to fight in the U.S. military.
Sacrifice worth noting
The Army’s first formal black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Voluntary Infantry, was formed in Beaufort County, a primary Civil War battleground.”We are talking about people who made the ultimate sacrifice, people who went without pay for months and months because of their dedication to this cause, people who wanted to fight,” Wright said.
By the end of the war in 1865, about 180,000 black men were in the Army. An additional 20,000 served in the Navy. Black women signed up as nurses, spies and scouts, including Harriet Tubman, who helped establish the underground railroad and was a scout for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
During the war, nearly 40,000 black soldiers died. According to Wright, that is a sacrifice worth noting.
“Here we are, 142 years later, and nobody ever said thank you to them. This is the first time all the families in South Carolina will be able to say thank you to their ancestors who fought in this war.”
(Article courtesy of the Houston Chronicle: http://www.chron.com )