Monday, July 13, 2015

Forgotten Valor - The Lincoln Cemetery

By Steve Light, 9-29-12

Many of the millions of visitors who come to Gettysburg each year find themselves strolling amidst the semicircle of graves in the National Cemetery while contemplating the meaning of Lincoln's words here. He used his Gettysburg Address not only as a chance to make a "few appropriate remarks" to honor the fallen, but as a call to action:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
To many in Lincoln's audience that day, and to those who read his words in newspapers in the days and weeks after, the "unfinished work" clearly referenced the end of the war and reunification. Those with keener insight perhaps interpreted "a new birth of freedom" as support for the complete eradication of the system of slavery. Yet the Gettysburg Address lives on in American memory because its message still speaks to us, much like Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Today, while we recognize Jefferson's self-evident truths as the founding principles of our nation, we can always look to Lincoln's address as a call to action to complete the unfinished work remaining to reach those lofty truths.

While the Civil War ended in 1865, the struggle to achieve a new birth of freedom for African Americans remained a long and arduous task. For those visitors to Gettysburg who would like to dig a bit deeper, evidence of that struggle resides within the very cemetery that Lincoln dedicated on November 19, 1863. In section 13 - a section devoted to U.S. Regulars - you can find the grave of Henry Gooden in the front row, second from the left. Gooden served in the 127th U.S. Colored Troops, which organized at Camp William Penn in the fall of 1864, and consisted of men enlisted and drafted from the State of Pennsylvania. The regiment saw combat only once during its service, at Deep Bottom.

Gooden died on August 3, 1876. Initially buried in the Alms House Cemetery, he was reburied in the National Cemetery on November 8, 1884. His presence there was an anomaly in a period of segregated cemeteries. Though a few black veterans from more recent wars were interred in the National Cemetery, Gooden remained the only black Civil War veteran in the cemetery until 1936, when Charles H. Parker joined him.

Parker served in Company F of the 3rd USCT, and died on July 2, 1876. His remains originally rested at Yellow Hill Cemetery north of Gettysburg, and his grave was rediscovered in the 1930s at the neglected cemetery by Dr. Henry Stewart, who was conducting a graves survey for the Gettysburg camp of the Sons of Union Veterans. Parker was moved to the National Cemetery in November, 1936. Today, Parker and Gooden remain the only black Civil War veterans buried in the National Cemetery.

Yet a small, out-of-the-way cemetery in Gettysburg speaks powerfully to the fact that, despite Lincoln's call for a "new birth of freedom," the country had a long way to go. While two famed cemeteries rested atop Cemetery Hill - the National Cemetery and the Evergreen Cemetery - these two sites largely remained for whites only. In 1867 a society of black men calling themselves the Sons of Good Will purchased a half-acre of land located along Long Lane, and set it aside as a place to bury Gettysburg's African American citizens and Civil War veterans. Called Goodwill Cemetery, this was actually the second black cemetery in the borough. Another cemetery had been located on the east end of town on York Street in 1824. In 1906 the bodies buried in this cemetery were exhumed and moved to Goodwill Cemetery.

According an interpretive marker at the site, the Lincoln Lodge of Gettysburg's Black Elks purchased the land along Long Lane in the 1920s, giving the Goodwill Cemetery its modern name, Lincoln Cemetery (though references to the Goodwill Cemetery can be found in Gettysburg newspapers right up to the 1950s). The remains of some forty African American veterans reside at Lincoln Cemetery, including 30 Civil War veterans of the USCT. For many years the cemetery hosted the Memorial Day observances of Gettysburg's African American community. On May 29, 1933 the Gettysburg Times reported on that year's program:

"After a creditable parade in which a number of visiting organizations participated, colored residents of Gettysburg paid fitting tribute to the memory of their soldier dead in Goodwill cemetery Sunday afternoon. A threatening rain held off until the exercises were concluded. The principle speaker for the occasion, Edward W. Henry, Philadelphia magistrate, delivered a forceful address in which he called upon colored citizens everywhere to combat the influences of communism, pointing to the results of that system in Russia, Germany, Spain and Mexico. He urged colored residents to live for and by the principles laid down by the constitution of the United States and Lincoln's proclamation of emancipation."

The procession to the cemetery itself included three bands and a group of African American school children. Upon arriving at the cemetery, the Gettysburg Boys' Band played a dirge, and the school children strewed flowers over the graves. Similar ceremonies continued at least through the 1960s.

Very few Gettysburg tourists know anything about the Lincoln Cemetery. I myself spent four years of college in Gettysburg, and did not learn about it until much later. Luckily, strenuous efforts over the past two decades have helped to preserve and fix up the cemetery, and to tell its story. In 1992, a community group called Concerned Neighbors revived the traditional Memorial Day observances at the cemetery. "Braving the bone chilling cold of a gray, rainy day," the June 1, 1992 Gettysburg Times related, '50 people - black, white, hispanic, young, old, veteran, lifelong civilian - marched to the cemetery to pay tribute to 40 men who served their country in various wars and now are buried in the segregation that marked their lives."

 In the years since, community members have continued these remembrances, and have worked hard to keep the cemetery in good condition. The cemetery has been fenced in and the same "Silence and Respect" signs that dot the National Cemetery are now posted.

Today the gates of Lincoln Cemetery are often locked - I have not yet made it inside those gates. Even so, I find that this out-of-the-way spot speaks so strongly to the "unfinished work" of Lincoln's Gettysburg address, and the struggles of the past 150 years (as well as those struggles that continue) for freedom and equality.

Image: Gettysburg Times, May 29, 1933



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