100 years later, historians to honor 10 Black Civil War soldiers buried in unmarked graves in New York
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — At Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, 10 Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War have laid at rest in unmarked graves for almost a century. Now, a group of local historians are finding ways to honor those veterans.
Next Saturday, Sept. 25, a public ceremony will pay tribute to those 10 soldiers. The event will pay special attention to one veteran in particular, James Jameson, who served in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first units of Black soldiers raised to fight for the Union.
The regiment’s story was depicted in the 1989 Academy Award-winning film “Glory,” starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Matthew Broderick. Its final scene showed the regiment’s heroic, but doomed, charge at Fort Wagner, S.C., near Charleston, on July 18, 1863. Nearly half the soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in the attack.
Their courage and bravery proved to Northern politicians and generals that Black soldiers could fight and more should be enlisted.
James Jameson served in Company H of that regiment.
He was born near the old train station at Vanderbilt Square on East Washington Street in Syracuse in 1837.
His father, Jim, was a porter, his mother a cook. His parents died when he was young and he and his sister, Henrietta, would be adopted by a family named Leonard.
At the age of 11, Jameson ran away and learned the barber trade, returning to Syracuse five years later to open his own shop.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that Black men would be accepted into the Army and Navy.
Jameson learned that Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, an ardent abolitionist, urged the formation of a Black regiment.
Jameson heard his plea and travelled to Readville, Mass., to join. He enlisted on April 29, 1863.
His military record said he was five-foot, four-inches tall, had brown eyes, black hair, and a light complexion. He received a $50 bounty for joining.
In a month’s time, the 54th set sail for South Carolina.
Following the attack at Fort Wagner, the regiment fought battles in South Carolina and Florida.
Jameson survived the war and was discharged on Aug. 20, 1865.
He returned to Syracuse and started up his barber shop again, cutting hair in the city continuously for 61 years, taking just two years off to serve in the 54th.
In an Aug. 9, 1916, Post-Standard article, Jameson, who had just turned 80 years old, was declared to be the “Oldest Barber in Syracuse.” The story only carried a passing reference to his service in what would become one of the most famous Civil War regiments in American history.
In the years before his death in 1924, Jameson took an active role in how he would be remembered.
He asked the “Root Post, the Grand Army of the Republic,” to take charge of his funeral and to be laid to rest with an American flag as a shroud.
On June 13, 1907, Jameson presented a photograph of himself, and a 12-foot wooden chain carved by another soldier to Commander James W. Armstrong at a G.A.R. meeting when he made his request.
“It did seem pathetic,” one veteran told the Syracuse Herald of the incident. “But the old man showed a feeling of loyalty to his country that made us all feel proud of him, and when he passes away, we shall see to it that he is buried with all the honors due a deceased comrade.”
In 1924, James Jameson was buried at Oakwood Cemetery, but without a headstone.
The reason why soldiers did not receive a marker varies case by case.
In most instances, it would fall on the family left behind to ensure a soldier had a marker for their grave.
For Jameson, the executor of his estate was the undertaker, which proves that he had no family to act on his wishes or provide him with a proper marker.
Almost 100 years later, the Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association has stepped in to fix that.
Sue Greenhagen and David Haas of the organization have been looking for ways to bring the historic cemetery and the local community closer together.
“What can we do to invite people in?” Haas said the group asked. “How can we let people know the history of the cemetery?”
A part of the effort was starting a “Black History Trail” at the cemetery, which included 10 Black Civil War soldiers buried there with a proper headstone.
Beginning in January, and starting with James Jameson, Greenhagen began looking into how to acquire a stone.
It was a frustrating process. They received little help from Veterans Affairs. Then Haas had an idea.
In 2019, he started a social media campaign from his Instagram account @SyracuseHistory to raise funds for a headstone for Syracuse soldier Thomas Butler, who died while fighting the forces of Pancho Villa in 1916.
The money was raised in less than two hours. If it worked for Butler, it would also work for James Jameson.
“We can fund this ourselves,” Haas said. “We can sell t-shirts and if we have extra money, we can do more soldiers.”
Word spread and they sold 250 shirts.
“It shows people want to do something,” Haas said. “It felt good.”
In the meantime, the “VA came through” and sent four markers for Black soldiers buried at Oakwood.
Haas says they will use some of the funds raised for the ceremony on Sept. 25. and to install the stone.
The National and Black National anthems will be performed by Dashe Roberts, a representative from the Syracuse mayor’s office will speak, Sue Greenhagen will tell the story of James Jameson, activist Nitch Jones will speak, and there will be a gun salute and wreath ceremony.
The ceremony will be the start of what Haas calls “a continuous project” to provide headstones for the nine other Black soldiers, and 80 total Civil War soldiers in Oakwood.
“This will take a long time,” Haas said.
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