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African-American Union Army soldiers died on their way home from war; then history lost their names

Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio
The monument to the 56th U.S. Colored Troops at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

The elm and oak trees have grown tall with age in Section 57 of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis County. It’s a quiet place, where songbirds rule the peace from the branches above.

Amid the white marble tombstones, row on row, stands one stone obelisk from another era. It marks the final resting place of African-American Civil War soldiers from Missouri who died from cholera in August 1866, as they made their way home from the war.

The soldiers were buried as Unknowns, even though the Army knew who they were. Last summer, their names were finally written in bronze.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The bronze marker recognizes 173 African-American Union Army soldiers, formerly listed as Unknowns.

Prodded by local historians, the Veterans Administration placed a marker next to the obelisk that includes the names of 118 soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry who are buried at the site, plus 55 soldiers whose remains were never recovered.

Reclaiming a lost legacy

Sarah Cato, a retired St. Louis attorney, visits Jefferson Barracks on Memorial Day to honor the soldiers by reading their names aloud. She belongs to the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society. Two years ago, the group petitioned the VA to properly identify the men.

Cato says it was a wrong that needed to be righted, even though it took 148 years.

“Any veteran. Any war. Any place in the world. His grave deserves to be marked,’’ she said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Cato and members of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society were determined to right a wrong, nearly 150 years old.

The names hadn’t been difficult to find; they were in a report compiled in 1939 when the remains of the soldiers were first moved to Jefferson Barracks. The bodies had been buried at the city's old quarantine hospital near the Mississippi River. The St. Louis County Library has a copy of the report.

“In the military there’s a report for everything. When they said they didn’t know the names that struck me as not credible,’’ Cato said.

The deaths were well-documented by the Army, which was coping with outbreaks of cholera during the 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Inscription on the monument purchased by the regiment to honor the soldiers who survived the war but died on their way home.

last six months of 1866. A casualty report written on Aug. 18, 1866, by Col. Charles Bentzoni, the 56th’s commanding officer, was referenced in a study of the Army's cholera epidemic published by the Surgeon General’s Office.

According to Bentzoni, his soldiers were in good health on Aug. 7, 1866, when they boarded the Continental and Platte Valley steamboats in Helena, Ark., for the trip up the Mississippi River. Within 24 hours, one soldier had become gravely ill and died on the Platte Valley. More than 50 soldiers died by the time the boats reached what was known as Quarantine Island, located south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. Historians believe that some of the soldiers had been buried along the river.

The St. Louis quarantine station, later the site of Koch hospital, was established by the city in response to the cholera epidemic of 1849, which killed an estimated 6,000 residents. In 1866, "the cholera'' was still to be feared. Symptoms of the disease -- extreme vomiting and diarrhea -- were as  as dreadful as they were deadly.

In 1894, Dr. George Homan, the city's health commissioner, revisited the "fearful mortality''of the regiment at a meeting of the St. Louis Medical College. He emphasized that the men didn't become ill until they were aboard the steamboats. In his opinion, they'd been poisoned by "water-borne cholera" from St. Louis sewage flowing into the river.

"Their legacy was erased with a stone that said Unknown." -- Sarah Cato, St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society

As the deaths mounted, the soldiers were buried in a cemetery on the hospital grounds. The regiment’s survivors paid for a stone obelisk as a tribute to their fallen comrades. The inscription was brief: To the memory of 175 non com. officers and privates of the 56. U.S.C. infty. Died of cholera in August 1866.

In 1939, a committee of St. Louis citizens convinced the War Department that the soldiers should be reburied in the nearby national cemetery.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The regiment's survivors paid for an obelisk to honor their fallen comrades. It was moved to Jefferson Barracks in 1939, where the remains were reinterred in a group grave.

The group was led by Joseph E. Mitchell, publisher of the St. Louis Argus, and Jacob Kuhl, who was active in veterans issues. The War Department earmarked $3,000 to move the remains and monument to a group grave at Jefferson Barracks. A dedication ceremony was held on Decoration Day 1939, and the soldiers were given military honors. A little girl -- a descendant of one of the soldiers -- placed a wreath on the grave.

Kuhl told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that the soldiers’ names would be placed on the monument when they were determined, according to a story published on June 13, 1939.

But for 75 years, the grave was marked with two stones that said, “Unknown Soldiers.’’

“Their legacy was erased with a stone that said ‘Unknown,’ ‘’ Cato said.

She credits Al Katzenberger, treasurer of the Jefferson Barracks Chapel Association, for bringing the story to the attention of the genealogy society. The group's meetings are open to the public, and he happened to attend one where the scheduled speaker didn't show up. While waiting, he began talking about the monument to people seated near him. Members of the chapel association had already been working to identify the soldiers.

“There were several of us in the group who were just flabbergasted,’’ Cato said. “We found it to be disrespectful and in need of correction. And that’s what we worked to do.’’

The men of the 56th

Cato says that most of the soldiers of the 56th were former slaves recruited in Missouri after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Credit Library of Congress
Portrait of an unidentified Union soldier made in St. Louis about 1863.

Though the regiment was organized in Missouri 1863, it was named the 3rd Arkansas Volunteer Infantry (African Descent) due to the political climate in the state. In an effort to appease Missouri slave owners who sided with the Union, Gov. Hamilton R. Gamble instructed recruiters to accept only the enlistments of freedmen and the slaves of disloyal owners. The regiment was redesignated as the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry in 1864 when the War Department formed the U.S. Colored Troops.

The 56th, which was commanded by white officers, served with Union forces occupying Helena, Ark. In 1864, the soldiers fought valiantly and suffered casualties during a battle with a Confederate force at Wallace's Ferry and Big Creek, Ark. Gen. Napoleon B. Buford commended the performance of the African-American troops, and his words  were included on a plaque placed on the obelisk in 1939: “Their memory will not perish.”

While serving in Helena, the men of the 56th helped to found a school and orphanage for freed slaves who sought refuge with the Union Army.

Cato says the men fought for a country that didn’t recognize them as citizens.

“These men were our forerunners,’’ she said. “They created the legacy for us as Americans, particularly for us as African Americans. Had it not been for these men, and men like them, there would be no black lawyers, no black teachers, doctors, dentists. There wouldn’t be a black president.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
At the dedication ceremony last fall, George Abington, 86, was presented with a flag in honor of his great-uncle Pvt. Granville Avington, a former slave who served with the 56th.

"It was an honor to be there"

The bronze marker was dedicated last August at a ceremony honoring the men of the 56th. Local American Legions took part, and there were honors by the Sons and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

In attendance was George Abington, 86, of St. Louis whose great-uncle -- Granville Avington -- is memorialized on the marker. (Researchers found that some of the soldiers’ names were spelled in various ways.)

Abington says he was surprised to learn that his ancestor had served in the Civil War.

“It was an honor to be there, plus a little overwhelming,’’ he said.

Abington, who represented the descendants of the soldiers, was presented with a U.S. flag.

Cato says that finding Abington was key to convincing the VA to include on the marker the names of soldiers not buried in the grave. Only someone who is next of kin can request recognition for a family member whose remains are unrecoverable.

According to the Army’s records, Private Granville Avington died aboard the steamer Continental and is presumed to have been buried along the Mississippi River.

“We were adamant that we wanted all the men from that unit who died to be remembered on that marker,’’ Cato said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Al Katzenberger with a recreation of the regimental flag of the 56th. American Legion Post 397 of Creve Coeur had the flag made for the dedication ceremony.

Support for the project came from a variety of sources, including U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, whose district includes Jefferson Barracks. And other local historians contributed information. 

Cato marvels at the series of events and pieces of information that fell into place. 

It was Dorris Keaven-Franke of the St. Charles County Historical Society who introduced the genealogy society to Abington. She had been helping him research his family and had discovered his connection to the 56th.

Katzenberger, 75, a Navy veteran who volunteers at the cemetery, said he became intrigued by the monument several years ago while working on another project.  

“To have people serve their country and then die during that time and then not looking after them, not recognizing them. That’s just not acceptable,’’ Katzenberger said.

Cato also credits cemetery director Jeff Barnes for working with the society and facilitating meetings with VA officials.

Barnes says that from the beginning everyone agreed that naming the soldiers was the right thing to do. But the VA had to confirm the research and follow procedure.

“We’re the government,’’ Barnes said. “Honestly, there was some red tape, but we also wanted to make sure it was done correctly. It’s permanent. It’s everlasting. It’s forever. So we worked as fast as we could. They deserve to be recognized -- and now they are.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The monument to the soldiers of the 56th who died of cholera in 1866 can be found in Section 57 at Jefferson Barracks.

By the numbers: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

203,000 -- number of interments as of May 2015

10,000 – Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, are buried at Jefferson Barracks; about 1,000 are Unknowns

4,500 – number of interments in 2014

1827 – date of first burial at the cemetery

564 –group burials at the cemetery, which during World War II was named the central group burial location for all national cemeteries. Until August 2014, the grave of the 56th U.S. Colored Troops was the only group burial site that wasn't marked with individual names

17 – average number of burials daily

5 – Of 132 national cemeteries,  Jefferson Barracks is the fifth busiest.

Source: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.