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Monongahela residents want to honor first black officer in Pa. National Guard

As a free black man, William Catlin tried to enlist in the Union Army twice during the Civil War and was twice rejected.

But he got his chance to serve when Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin declared an emergency and called for an additional 12,000 troops. On Feb. 24, 1864, Catlin was 17 when he enlisted in the 32nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops and trained with about 11,000 black soldiers at Camp William Penn, just outside Philadelphia.

Standing at attention with his musket, Catlin posed for a tintype that he purchased from a photographer. The serious look on his face reflects a patriotic zeal that came to distinguish him as both a soldier and a civilian.

"The colored soldiers, by coolness, steadiness and determined courage and dash, have silenced every cavil of the doubters of their soldierly capacity, and drawn tokens of admiration from their enemies," said an obviously impressed Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler after observing the Camp William Penn recruits.

Butler, a white officer who paid for the striking of a medal to honor members of the Colored Troops, believed blacks should be allowed to fight for their freedom, said Kenneth C. Turner, a Civil War historian who owns images of Catlin and a Butler medal.

The son of a barber, Catlin was born in West Newton and grew up in Monongahela, Washington County. By April 1864, he was in South Carolina, where he fought in the battle of Honey Hill on Nov. 30, 1864. He also served in military campaigns in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. He was mustered out in August 1865.

After the war, he became the first African-American to earn a commission in the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1871, he organized and became captain of Company F, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry, which was made up of Civil War veterans from the Colored Troops.

Bruce Bazelon, former chief of the division of historic sites for Pennsylvania, spent a morning looking through the leather- and cloth-bound ledgers in the state archives that document the Pennsylvania National Guard's order of battle. "It fills in who the officers were, the units and where they're from."

Initially, he was looking only for Capt. Catlin but found more.

"Nobody suspected this unit existed. It is, as far as we know, the earliest black affiliated National Guard unit. It was made up of former U.S. Colored Troop soldiers, including their officer. This was a discovery of some interest," Mr. Bazelon said.

Catlin's service in the Pennsylvania National Guard, which lasted until 1878, preceded federal legislation passed in 1903 that formally allowed blacks to serve in the National Guard, Mr. Turner said.

This particular soldier's story intrigues Walter Seal, a retired millwright who lives in Monongahela. A few years ago, Mr. Seal was browsing in a secondhand shop in New Eagle when he found pictures of Catlin. He believes the pioneering veteran, who died in 1930 and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery, deserves a memorial.

Mr. Bazelon agreed, noting that Catlin was a unique figure for his service in both the Colored Troops and Pennsylvania National Guard. "It says something new and unique."

Monongahela Cemetery opened in 1863 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its first seven sections, designed by John Chislett, include the graves of veterans of the Civil War and later wars. These sections look like garden rooms framed by hedges and trees. In 1918, the architectural landscape firm of Hare & Hare laid out newer sections with clear vistas and roads for cars.

John "Jack" Cattaneo, who retired after teaching history for 38 years at Ringgold High School, serves on the cemetery's board. Mr. Seal is one of his former students.

"I have to agree with Walter that William Catlin's contributions to the community, this state and to the nation, have to be recognized. How do we do this in a manner that honors his memory and where do we place a memorial, a plaque or a monument to him?"

The cemetery is an option, Mr. Cattaneo said, but other sites where more people would see the memorial should be considered, too.

"The location of his barbershop is still standing. Could it be placed there? The library has a significant amount of foot traffic coming out of it each day and it's only a block away from the AME Church on Sixth Street where Mr. Catlin was a member," Mr. Cattaneo said.

The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which was used by black slaves making their way to freedom.

In 1900, Catlin ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature but that loss did not dampen his drive to ensure equal treatment of black citizens. Around 1910, a movie theater opened in Monongahela with segregated seating based on race. According to architectural historian Terry Necciai, Catlin reacted swiftly to the news.

"Capt. Catlin closed his barbershop promptly, made himself a placard and held a one-man demonstration in front of the Gem Theater until the owners saw the error of their ways," Mr. Necciai wrote in a book that commemorates Monongahela's history.

Mr. Cattaneo, who grew up in Monongahela in the 1950s, was appalled that the town once had a movie theater that separated patrons by race. That was not the case in the cemetery.

"I'm very proud of Monongahela Cemetery never entertaining segregation. Families purchased graves freely wherever they wanted to," he said.

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