Adams County historians reflect on gravesites for black soldiers
Nearly 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War as part of the United States Colored Troops, yet many of their gravesites remain lost or in poor condition, according to local historians.
Betty Myers, who oversees Gettyburg's Lincoln Cemetery, and Deb McCauslin, who has researched similar gravesites in Butler Township, have seen firsthand how historic cemeteries for black soldiers have fallen into disrepair over the years.
"Very few black cemeteries are preserved," Myers said, standing among the headstones and waving flags of Lincoln Cemetery. "I'd see all kinds of things happen here if the money was right."
The topic sparked national interest before Memorial Day when U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) asked the country's Department of Veterans Affairs to create a comprehensive list of black Civil War veteran gravesites.
"This is an important first step to ensure that we do not lose track of these historic sites, and it is the least we should do to honor these heroes," Casey said in a letter to department Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs Steve Muro.
Roughly 179,000 black men served as soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War, and another 19,000 served in the Navy, according to the National Archives. Of these nearly 200,000 soldiers who served as part of the United States Color Troops, about 40,000 died during the war.
None of these units fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, but some were buried in Adams County, including two in the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, said Katie Lawhon, spokesperson for Gettysburg National Military Park. These two soldiers were reinterred there from other cemeteries in 1884 and 1936.
Most local black Civil War veterans, however, are buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg. The site's oldest parcel, once called the Good Will Cemetery, is the final resting place for about 30 soldiers of the United States Colored Troops.
This cemetery, however, has faced its fair share of struggles over the years, said Betty Myers, who has overseen it since 1998.
From about the 1940s until the 1990s, the site became dilapidated because of lack of funding and people to maintain it. Headstones sunk into the ground, weeds ran rampant and the wooden fence surrounding the grounds disappeared. Myers, who has lived next to the cemetery since 1959, remembers walking by and not knowing what it was.
This all changed in 1998 when Myers and some other concerned citizens formed the nonprofit Lincoln Cemetery Project Association, which collected funds from the community to construct a metal fence around the grounds, fix damaged headstones and add signage around the property, among other projects.
Myers worries, however, that interest in the site has once again dwindled. The association's annual Memorial Day event at the site did not take place for the first time this year, and few tourists stop by to pay their respects. Myers keeps the cemetery gate locked most of the time to prevent vandalism and damage from excessive foot traffic.
The grounds, however, remain in good condition. Flags mark soldiers' graves, and bases have recently been installed under sunken headstones. The borough takes care of mowing, and Myers believes the association's annual Remembrance Day event will go on as planned in November.
The site is just one of many such cemeteries people have struggled to maintain since the late 1800s, said Deb McCauslin, a local historian. She has performed extensive research on Yellow Hill in Butler Township, the former site of a pre-Civil War black community.
A number of community members, including several veterans of the United States Colored Troops, were once buried in the Yellow Hill Cemetery, McCauslin said. The site, however, was poorly maintained until a work initiative in the 1930s.
During that initiative, two black Civil War veterans were reinterred in Gettysburg -- one in the Soldiers' National Cemetery and one in Lincoln Cemetery.
Many, but not all, of the other bodies at Yellow Hill have also been removed since then, McCauslin said. No upright headstones remain today, having fallen victim to either vandalism or the elements. A few bases are all that's visibly left of the site, which is maintained by a local man.
McCauslin praised Sen. Casey's request from the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying she feels Yellow Hill and other aspects of African American history are too often overlooked.
"It's just very important we find them and honor them like any other veterans," she said of the troops. "African American history is American history."