An Eastern red cedar shades Alexander Chaney’s headstone in Janes Cemetery, Chestertown, MD, but the tree has not kept wind, weather, and time from corroding the inscription or keeping the stone from leaning. A visitor must touch and trace the raised letters to know what they say: “Alex. Chaney. CO. A. 6 U.S.C. INF.” During the Civil War, Alexander Chaney served in Company A of the 6th United States Colored Infantry, also known as the United States Colored Troops.
He could not read or write. In his Civil War pension file, at the bottom of many documents, is the printed statement, “Claimant can ____ read or write” with the word, “not,” inserted. On the signature line of sworn affidavits, someone wrote his name for him, adding the note, “His mark,” with Chaney’s “X.” (In Alexander Chaney’s pension file at the National Archives, Certificate 683990) Federal censuses also record that he could not read or write.
That he could not read and write is not surprising. The inaccessibility to education for free Blacks in Maryland at that time is well known. His illiteracy haunts me because it meant that upon his return from war, he could not write letters, as did other Black veterans, about his wartime experiences to national newspapers like the National Tribune or the Christian Recorder (the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal church). (See examples of letters in A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, edited by Edwin S. Redkey, Cambridge University Press, 1992) He could not, even if he had wanted to, write about the circumstances of his conscription in Easton in 1864. (It has been suggested that he was conscripted in order to fill a quota. See the 2013 paper, “Alexander Chaney: Soldier, Laborer, Enigma,” by Washington College student Kelly Haswell.
For a free Black man to be conscripted was yet another experience of “travestied freedom,” to borrow a term from cultural critic, Saidiya Hartman. (Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, rev. ed. 2022, originally published 1997, p. 11) We are robbed of ever knowing what he thought about his white officers (only white officers led USCT regiments) or the duties he was given. Did he hope that by serving in the U. S. military, whites would recognize him as a man, as an equal, as a citizen at the war’s conclusion? Frederick Douglass, an enthusiastic recruiter of Black men for the Union army, had that hope. (David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster, 2018, p. 391)
Chaney could not write, but he could join, and, in 1882, he and twenty-seven other Black Civil War veterans established Post 25 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a post that they named the Charles Sumner Post, to honor the abolitionist U. S. Senator Charles Sumner.
In 1882, the GAR, a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans, was part of the national conversation about how the Civil War should be remembered. Many Americans, wanting to move on, emphasized reconciliation and reunion, but not the GAR, especially all-Black posts. Historian Robert Cook writes, “Blacks were always the staunchest proponents of an emancipation-focused Unionist narrative . . . . While African American veterans were generally poorer than their white counterparts and likely to die at an earlier age than the latter, many of them resolutely demonstrated their patriotism and manhood by joining all-Black GAR posts . . . Maryland Blacks in the late nineteenth century had no intention of relinquishing Civil War memories to their oppressors.” (Robert J. Cook, “ ‘F—k the Confederacy’: The Strange Career of Civil War Memory in Maryland after 1865,” in The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered, edited by Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker, Louisiana State University Press, 2021, pp. 318-319) GAR posts were also places where members received employment help and other kinds of aid.
In 1890, Chaney applied for a Civil War pension. Historian Holly Pinheiro writes, “[E]ach application reveals African Americans’ desire to become part of the Civil War’s national remembrance in a lasting and meaningful way . . . . Civil War pensions created yet another battleground in the fight for African Americans’ cultural citizenship.” (Holly A. Pinhiero Jr., The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice, The University of Georgia Press, 2022. p. 11) From his file, one learns that Private Chaney contracted “yellow fever” and “camp fever” on the march from Kinston to Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1865 and was treated in a regiment hospital. Two months later, in 1865, Chaney and his fellow soldiers were mustered out in Wilmington, North Carolina. (In his pension file at the National Archives)
His pension application accepted, he received $12 per month. Each time Congress increased the amount Civil War veterans could receive, Chaney was required to submit yet another application which involved another wearying round of affidavits and doctor examinations. At the time of his death, in 1917, his pension was $22.50. (In his pension file at the National Archives) Federal censuses recorded his occupation as “laborer” over the decades; in rural Kent County, his pension must have been an economic lifeline.
His barely legible headstone provides neither date of birth nor date of death: no government-issued headstone for Civil War veterans did. His death certificate lists his date of birth as “unknown” and his age as “more than 70 years.” Other documents suggest he was born around 1839. He died June 8, 1917, at 305 Calvert Street, leaving behind his wife, Elizabeth. (In his pension file at the National Archives)
That very same month and year, June 1917, the monument honoring Kent County residents who served in the federal Second Eastern Shore Regiment, an all-white regiment, and in the Confederate Army was erected in Chestertown’s Memorial Park. Reflecting the reconciliation narrative, the inscription reads, in part, “a once divided but now reunited country.” Not until 1999, eighty-two years later, was the monument to U. S. Colored Troops erected.
In 1921, William Burk of Chestertown applied for government-issued headstones for the unmarked graves of seven Civil War veterans. (Record Group 92: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Entry 592: Applications for Headstones in Private Cemeteries, 1909-1924 under Kent County, Maryland.) Six veterans were Black; one was white. Six headstones were to be erected in Janes Cemetery; one in Chester Cemetery. Besides Chaney’s headstone, I could only locate in Janes Cemetery the headstones of John H. Gould, Co. H 30th USCT, and Oscar M. Crozier, 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made famous in the film, “Glory.” Like Chaney, Crozier was a founder of GAR Post 25. The headstones of Gould and Crozier are still legible and upright.
We continue to debate whom to remember in our history and how to honor them. In 1879, the GAR threw its support behind federal legislation to provide headstones for the unmarked graves of Civil War veterans in private cemeteries. These veterans would be honored with “the best American marble.” One so remembered was Alexander Chaney, Co. A, 6th USCT and member of the Charles Sumner Post of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Kathryn Lee (Ph.D., J.D.), is the former chair of the Political Science Department and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. Kathryn was recently profiles in the New Yorker which can be read here. She retired to Chestertown last July.