The mission of the Don’t Duck History program is to promote and facilitate the learning and sharing of American history, along with its personal and social implications, and to highlight the history of Americans whose stories are not often presented in traditional American history textbooks. Here is a story.
Last Memorial Day I blogged about a Memorial Day event that I had attended. It was at a cemetery in Norfolk VA, where Don’t Duck History is based. I had been in the middle of cooking breakfast, checked my Facebook account while I was waiting, and found out about the event shortly before it was to start. Breakfast was ditched, quick change of clothes, and out the door I went. Little did I know at the time that the decision to attend would be part of my circle of life, and the circle of others as well.
Do you remember “arcs” from geometry class? No? Well they are basically a portion of a circle, and I’m choosing to tell the rest of this story using the arcs that made up my recent circle. Stay with me.
I attended the Memorial Day service at Calvary cemetery in Norfolk VA in 2015. I had no idea at the time that the cemetery was at some point in history the only cemetery where Blacks could be buried in Norfolk. According to the cemetery website, that time period spanned almost 100 years, from 1877 to the mid-1970’s.[i] The event was held in the section of the cemetery where markers have been placed for Veterans who are interred at the facility.
Fast forward to August of 2015, and my mother informed me that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Within weeks we found that it was late-stage, inoperable, and terminal. She passed away in October.
While looking through her records, I found that my mother had written down some of the wishes for her final arrangements. She had actually done it years ago and saved it both on her computer and on a disc. What a surprise to find out that she requested to buried in Calvary cemetery! I was both grateful for her planning, and grateful for history lesson that it led me to. (Of course, I’d rather her just be here to tell me more.) While looking for information about the facility online, I came across the aspect of it’s history in the Black community in Norfolk. There is actually a section of the website that shares information about some of the more well known people who were buried there.[ii]
Fast forward to May 28th, 2016. I attended a tour of a church in Portsmouth VA that is said to have a connection to the Underground Railroad (Stay tuned, there will be more about that in another writing!). Because my trip would put me close to Calvary cemetery, I planned to stop there to visit my mother’s grave, and also to take some time to look at the Veteran’s headstones that are there.
Simply because of the entrance that I happened to take, I ended up in the Veteran section first. I walked amongst the markers, and noticed there were many who were WWI and WWII Veterans, but there were a few who were identified as Veterans of the Spanish American War. Okay, when is the last time you heard ANYTHING about the Spanish American War? I can totally relate if, in fact, you can’t remember anything about it at all. That’s where I was when I saw those markers. I took a few pictures of individual markers (one of a man named Luther McNeely), and headed off to the area where my mother is buried.
Because the entrance I took on this day was not the entrance taken on the days of prior visits, I somehow thought I had to drive to another area to get to the area where mom is buried. I had only driven a very short distance when I found out just how wrong I was. As I was driving, I immediately saw the two trees that are my mental marker that she’s nearby. I really could have walked. It’s a distance of about 100 yards. Yes, really. Let me recap. Almost one year to the day of me visiting the cemetery for a Memorial Day event, I was there again visiting with the veterans AND my mother. Let that sink in for a moment (I had to.). Here endeth the circle, but the story does not end here. Maybe I should have titled this blog “Sixty Degrees of Separation”.[iii] Haha! See what I did there? If you’d like to know more about Mr. McNeely and what his experience in the war was like, read on.
The Saga Continues:
Pictured is the marker of Luther McNeely. Notice it doesn’t state his birth or death dates. After a search, I found that he was born roughly 10 years after the end of the Civil War.[iv] According to the cemetery records, his life spanned from July 15, 1875 through April 11, 1947. I then took some time to look up the military unit he was associated with, and came upon a website that is dedicated to the Spanish American War. Mr. McNeely was part of the 3rd North Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Company G, according to his marker and a listing on a roster on The Spanish American War Centennial website, which also lists him as a Private. The website listing reads:
“McNeely, Luther: Of Statesville, North Carolina. Enlisted on June 23rd, 1898; mustered into service on July 14th, 1898; mustered out of service with the Company on January 31st, 1899, at Macon, Georgia.”[v]
He was mustered into service the day before his 23rd birthday.
HISTORY OF THE WAR REGARDING AFRICAN AMERICANS
“The sinking of the U.S. Navy battleship MAINE, in Havana harbor, February 15, 1898, and the resulting loss of American lives gave all the cause needed to commence the war Americans, both civilian and military, seemed to want. The suddenness of the event, however, revealed a shortcoming in military preparedness for a nation with expansionist intentions.
The army totaled little more than 26,000 men and 2,000 officers. And the mass of experienced combat troops were garrisoned at numerous forts throughout the west. It was no surprise, under the circumstances, that among the first units ordered to Cuba were the four black regiments. They were selected primarily on the basis of recent experience and their record on the Plains, but there was also the judgment of the War Department that blacks were immune to the diseases of the tropics and capable of more activity in high, humid temperatures. This erroneous thinking resulted in a concerted effort to recruit blacks for the formation of more “immune” troops. Whatever the motives for mobilizing black regulars, the soldiers themselves welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate their “soldierly qualities” and win respect for their race.
Black soldiers may have had little hesitation in whole-heartedly joining the Cuban expedition, but a large segment of the black community felt differently. The anti-imperialist element was concerned about the War’s impact on black Americans. Many members of this group were sympathetic with the plight of Cuba and especially with black Cubans. “Talk about fighting and freeing poor Cuba and of Spain’s brutality; of Cuba’s murdered thousands, and starving reconcentradoes. Is America any better than Spain? Has she not subjects in her very midst who are murdered daily without a trial of judge or jury? Has she not subjects in her borders whose children are half-fed and half-clothed, because their father’s skin is black.”
The anti-imperialists envisioned a war that would extend the Jim Crow empire, leaving black Americans as well as the colored population of the Spanish colonies in the same oppressed condition or worse. Only when the American government guaranteed its own minority citizens full constitutional rights, they contended, could it sincerely undertake a crusade to free oppressed people from tyranny.
The advocates of the war maintained that the black man’s participation in the military effort would win respect from whites and therefore enhance his status at home. They also hoped that the islands coming under American influence would open economic opportunities for blacks and bring them into contact with predominately “colored” cultures. “Will Cuba be a Negro republic? Decidedly so, because the greater portion of the insurgents are Negroes and they are politically ambitious. In Cuba the colored man may engage in business and make a great success. Puerto Rico is another field for Negro colonization and they should not fail to grasp this great opportunity.”
The extreme positions of the anti and pro-war leaders did not, however, characterize the response of blacks in general. Their attitude was clearly ambivalent. A majority seemed to consider participation in the military struggle an obligation of citizenship which they would gladly fulfill if they could do so in a way that would enhance rather than degrade their manhood. They hoped that a display of patriotism would help dissipate racial prejudice against them. Unfortunately, they were never free of misgivings about a war launched in the name of humanity and waged in behalf of “little brown brothers” by a nation enamored with Anglo-Saxon supremacy.”[vi]
HISTORY OF THE THIRD NORTH CAROLINA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY
The group was comprised of Black soldiers who were led by White officers.
On September 14, 1898, the regiment was, by order of the War Department, moved in three sections to Knoxville, Tennessee, this being the first relocation since the muster in of the regiment. Thus this naturally strengthened hopes that they were being sent to Cuba. En route to Knoxville, the first section was under command of Major Haywood, the second under Major Walker, and the third under Colonel Young, the first and third sections arrived at Knoxville without any accident. The second section had the misfortune to have a coach leave the rail and turn over a few miles from Asheville, injuring two or three men seriously, but killing no one. The regiment pitched camp at Knoxville on the afternoon of its arrival, and for the first time was thrown in contact and association with their fellow comrades of other regiments. The delight and joy of the men cannot be described as being thus associated with their fellow countrymen for one grand and common cause.
By this time the regiment had attained such a degree of proficiency as to place it easily in the first rank of volunteer regiments in the service as in relation to drill and discipline. The officers and men had worked hard to bring about this proficiency second to none in the volunteer service, and they had cause to be proud of their records. While in Knoxville, Colonel Young was Brigade commander from the 1st of October to the 20th, thus showing the confidence and esteem in which the third North Carolina regiment was held by the War Department.
The regiment remained at Knoxville until it became so cold that on November 22, it was ordered to Macon, Georgia, a warmer climate and a more suitable camp for winter. Nothing special of interest happened while en-route to Macon. The regiment arrived at Macon on the same day it was ordered out and found the camp ground already laid off by a detachment that had been sent a few days prior. It was found to be a most desirable place for a winter camp, being on light sandy loam and a little more elevated than the surrounding country, and about three miles from the city of Macon, and connected by electric car line, there, as other places the regiment was in splendid conditions as to health and practice in drills.[vii]
NEWSPAPER ARTICLES RELATED TO THE THIRD NORTH CAROLINA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY
From the Knoxville Journal and Tribune:
October 3, 1898:
It is now almost certain that the camp of this regiment will be removed to the hillside on the Middlebrook pike at the point where the street car track crosses the railroad and it is expected that as soon as the water pipes are laid from the mains of the Knoxville Water company, the camp will be moved.
Yesterday many of the officers and men enjoyed the hospitality of colored residents of the city, who invited them out to dinner.
The regiment yesterday furnished one detail of four hundred men to assist in laying the water pipes to the new camping grounds of the Third brigade on the Middlebrook pike.
October 5, 1898:
The following letter is reported to have been sent to Secretary of War Alger by members of this regiment. The names of those who signed the letter were not given to The Journal and Tribune reporter with the copy of the letter.
Third North Carolina Regiment
(All companies) Sept. 23, 1898,
To the Secretary of War:
Dear Sir:–We the undersigned many soldiers, heard that you had been instructed that we wanted to stay in service as garrison duty, but my dear sir, we are now pleading with mercy and deny any such report as there had been reported and we feel that our superior officers has treated us wrong to hold us in service without we knowing anything about it.
We the undersigned did not join the service for garrison duty. We only sacrificed our lives and left our homes simply for the honor of our flag and the destruction of our country and families as the war was going on at that time, but now the war is over and we do feel that we might be mustered out of service because we are getting letters from our families every day or two stating the suffering condition, and oh my God, the way that we are treated. We have to drill harder than any other regiment on the grounds and after drilling so hard, we have to work so hard. We have to cut ditches, sink holes and fill up gullies, put in water pipes. We, the 3rd N.C. regiment soldiers has not had but one pair of pants, one coat, two undershirts, one top shirt. We are in a box fit. Our food is not fit to eat, and oh my dear sir, we are bound up in a little place about 400 feet long 3 feet wide. Just think of the confinement we are under just because we volunteered freely to fight for our country.
We the undersigned many soldiers did not volunteer for garrison duty and we do not think that our honorable government will take the advantage of willing and faithful men who came to the rescue of the flag, stars and stripes. We have a great deal more to tell you but we can not express ourselves like it ought to be done.
Down at Fort Macon we was misled. The question was asked who wanted to stay in the service and go to the front if necessary, called upon them to raise hands, but the question never was asked if we wanted to do garrison duty. If they had of asked that question we never would have been in Knoxville today. Why don’t you know as a good thinking man that we don’t want to leave our wives and families to go on garrison duty. Why if so you would have had more applications in the white house than the mail box would have helt.
You know that these officers is getting a very good salary and they would go in three miles of hell after that dollar, but we who are brave men did not come for the sake of that $15.60, but we gloried in the flag and come to hold it up by the balls and shells. So as we did not get a chance to do so we hope that you will consider this matter. Look it over, give us the judgment of justice and if you do we will go home to our families who are in a suffering condition, so we will not write any more.
We the undersigned await your earliest reply. Many soldiers of the Third North Carolina regiment. We want to go home.
October 10, 1898:
Since the recent rain the camp is in good condition and yesterday a large number of visitors were in the camp. The health of the regiment remains very good, comparatively few of the men being in the hospital. The hospital of the Third is situated in a pleasant position and the men have all the comforts possible, and a good corps to take care of them. A number of the men were allowed the privilege of going into the city yesterday and many were in attendance at the numerous negro churches.
October 13, 1898:
Pay day is eagerly looked for by the men in the Third and the “man with the coin”[paymaster] will be a welcome guest in camp. The band of the regiment is now getting in some good work and is making a very creditable showing. The men are still hard at work at drills and in a few days will make a practice march of several miles into the surrounding country.”[viii]
Here endeth today’s history lesson. If you would like to learn more about the war, there is a lot more to learn on the Spanish American War Centennial Website. Here’s a link to the home page: http://www.spanamwar.com/index.htm
Have a safe Memorial Day, give a salute to Luther McNeely, and don’t duck history!
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[v] http://www.spanamwar.com/3rdnorthcarolinaroster.html#Company G