Renewed effort on Cape Cod to tell slave-turned-soldier Joseph Wilson's story

By BETH TREFFEISEN | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: January 18, 2020

SANDWICH, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Located down a winding wooded path on the north side of Quaker Meetinghouse Road, a lonely gravesite sits within a fenced-in area covered in American flags. Inside, a penny sits atop the moss-covered stone that marks the grave of Joseph Wilson.

Wilson was born a slave in the pre-Civil War South and was freed after he joined the Union Army. He arrived in Sandwich in the 1870s and farmed the piece of land where his gravestone is now located until his death in 1886.

Sandwich resident James Coogan, a former columnist for the Cape Cod Times, has visited the site a number of times to clear brush and any litter that accumulates around Wilson's grave.

"We should do something more," he said.

A local Eagle Scout cleared brush around the grave and put up fencing and a marker sign about 10 years ago, but the time has come for some additional fixing up, Coogan said.

On Tuesday, he was granted permission by the Board of Selectmen to place a sign on a post to the trail's entrance telling the story of Wilson and how he came to live in Sandwich after the Civil War. The gravesite is located on town land.

A weatherproof box with details of Wilson's service will be posted at the site. It will also call attention to other notable Civil War sites in town, including the monument in Eaton Square and the plaque at Town Hall that lists local service members who fought in past wars.

The Visitors Service Board has provided Coogan with $600 to complete the project.

Coogan has not yet gotten permission from the town's Cemetery Commission to professionally clean the stone.

Although it is a small project, Coogan believes Wilson should be recognized. He has done some research into Wilson's life though he admits he didn't come up with much.

"We'll never know the story of his life, but his life is typical of so many men who are not known and mentioned," Coogan said.

The records that Coogan was able to find indicate Wilson was born around the 1840s either in Virginia or Maryland, both of which were slave states.

Military records show that Wilson joined the 1st Louisiana Regiment as an infantry soldier in New Orleans on Sept. 27, 1862, shortly after the city fell to Union forces. The 1st Louisiana was a volunteer unit made up of former slaves.

It is not known how Wilson got to New Orleans, said Coogan, who believes he might have been sold to someone in the Deep South.

Town archives indicate that Wilson served most of his time in the 73rd Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in 1864 and 1865. During those years Wilson was paid between $6 and $9 a month, Coogan found.

The regiment traveled from Florida west into Alabama and finished the war as occupation troops in Louisiana. Wilson left New Orleans in September 1865 with $22 as final payout for his service.

Records show that in 1874, Wilson married Caroline Philips, a resident of Mashpee. Philips was listed on the marriage certificate as a servant and was a Native American who was born in Nova Scotia.

Together they arranged to work a piece of land off Quaker Meetinghouse Road as sharecroppers. An agricultural production record shows that the rental property was about 75 acres of meadow, with about 5 farmable acres and 8 acres of woodland that were worth $500.

Wilson died of consumption in 1886 in the town's almshouse. The standard Civil War marker for Wilson was erected on April 21, 1888.

Coogan is not aware of another former slave who came to Cape Cod after fighting in the Civil War, making Wilson's grave a unique place.

Coogan said he sees the grave's isolated location as a kind of a metaphor for what Wilson's life was probably like. He was most likely treated poorly by the majority of people who lived there, he said.

A veteran who served 26 years in the Navy, Coogan said he doesn't see Wilson as a hero because he is not sure what he did during his time of service. But he sees Wilson as representative of the black initiative to fight for freedom.

"He didn't have to join the army," Coogan said. "He took the initiative to join, and that's important I think."

©2020 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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