Friday, December 30, 2005

78: “We Shall Nobly Save…”

At the time, Maryland was a slave state, and Pennsylvania basically a free one, though there were lingering effects of slavery almost up to the Civil War. The last legal slave sale in Pennsylvania took place somewhere between Lancaster and Reading around 1842. It so outraged everyone in the state (well, almost everyone), that the practice was outlawed.

Along the southern border of Pennsylvania, commonly referred to as the Mason-Dixon Line, the Underground Rail Road was in full swing from just after the American Revolution (when we took over control of what happened here), through the American Civil War. During that period, an unknown number of escaped slaves (some estimates are in the tens of thousands, others in the hundreds of thousands), came north to freedom above the Mason-Dixon Line. There were branch lines of the URR in most of the eastern counties along that border with Maryland. From east to west, they are Delaware, Chester, Lancaster, York, Adams, and Franklin Counties, almost all with rich farm soil, though much of Delaware County has been swallowed up by sprawl from neighboring Philadelphia County.

Many slaves escaping to free soil stopped running as soon as they crossed the line and settled into one of those six counties, either too exhausted to run any farther, or ignorant of the Fugitive Slave laws, or both. The Fugitive Slave laws had their basis in the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted in 1789. In Article 4, Section 2 it says:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Under this law, slave owners routinely crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, drafted the assistance of a local sheriff and rounded up whatever Blacks met their fancy and took them back to slavery in the South. It was one such raid in 1851 that particularly fired up both sides. It was called the Christiana Riot, and took place on the border of Lancaster and Chester Counties, some few miles above the Mason-Dixon Line. A Maryland slave owner was killed by a group of Blacks resisting their arrest and return to slavery. There is no indication that they were owned by the slave owner, meaning they were likely not his runaways.

Many northern states offered freedom to the runaways. They enacted laws providing protection for them, yet all these laws were struck down as unconstitutional because of Article 4, Section 2. A number of legal cases occurred in the ante-bellum period, but one in particular was the basis of widening the sectional rift between slave and free states almost to the breaking point – Dred Scott. In the Scott decision, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Roger B. Taney, a Maryland slave owner, declared that Scott had no standing to sue in American courts because he was not an American citizen, and as a Black ‘inferior being’, could never become one, therefore, any lower court decisions declaring him free were vacated. Taney’s brief went much farther than that, but needlessly. Once Scott was denied citizenship (something not guaranteed to Blacks until passage of the 14th Amendment in July of 1868), there was nothing else on which to rule. Yet Taney went on excoriating the interference of northern agitators in southern affairs by declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. He made no explanation of how that 'inferior being' quite unfairly counted as 3/5th of a person, was counted in determining Congressional districting, giving an enormous advantage to the south in the early days of the Republic. That advantage was about to disappear with the addition of new states to the Union, hence, secession and civil war on Lincoln’s election.

[Ever since the passage of the 14th Amendment it has been contested in the courts. Some of the most important of these many cases rooted in the 14th Amendment’s clarification of citizenship are the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, which were a set back for Federal protection of civil rights, Plessy vs. Ferguson, an 1896 setback for the intent of the Amendment by upholding de jure segregation (separate but equal), and Brown vs. the Board of Education, a 1954 case that was the watershed of civil rights, though rooted in the field of public education, that reinstituted Federal authority over civil rights as intended by the 14th Amendment by declaring the de jure segregation of schools under the “separate but equal” policy of Plessy vs. Ferguson could not guarantee equal education in public schools. The Brown decision essentially overturned Plessy.]

In the Gettysburg area, as in many other areas along the Mason-Dixon line, many Blacks took up farming. It was likely what they were skilled at doing, and it was the main industry of the area. Others, who perhaps had other skills, such as tanners, carpenters, wagonwrights and wheelwrights, etc., settled on the southwest side of town. There, at the edge of their town, the Blacks built their cemetery. It was tucked away on a western slope, out of sight of the town, but with a grand view of the majestic South Mountain to the west. Here, the cemetery was dedicated as "Lincoln Cemetery - Established in 1867 by the Sons of Good Will for the proper burial of Gettysburg's African American citizens and Civil War veterans.” In 1906, Gettysburg’s older black cemetery was cleared to make way for new buildings, and the bodies were re-interred in the Lincoln Cemetery.

Today, Lincoln Cemetery overlooks the magnificent Gettysburg Borough Recreation Park, in addition to the wonderful mountain view. But today, it is also a near forgotten piece of history, for inside its iron fence lie the remains of many Black veterans of the American Civil War, those who volunteered to fight in a number of Black state regiments, and those who fought as United States Colored Troops. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (brought to fame by the movie Glory) had a recruiting office in Gettysburg. There are veterans of the 54th buried there. There are men who served after the war, in our western campaigns against the Indians, who were known as Buffalo Soldiers, and who served with distinction in the United States Army’s Cavalry. There were Black Army units that went up San Juan Hill next to and in front of Teddy Roosevelts Rough Riders. These men were denied burial in National Cemeteries because of the color of their skin, a policy that existed until all too recently.

Nearly 200,000 men served as USCT. They fought, and bled, and died for the Union during the Civil War, with as much ferocity, tenacity, and courage as the men in the white regiments, and sometimes more, when they were deliberately and repeatedly placed in positions of extreme danger and exposed to the worst effects of enemy fire.

It is time to honor these men. It is time to erect a monument to these men for the monumental efforts they gave in the cause of freedom, and the monumental wrongs they endured in the cause of civil rights.

Abraham Lincoln, the man for whom the Lincoln Cemetery is named, remarked in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1863:

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
And so, we have an opportunity now, to carry on what Lincoln so nobly advanced. He came to Gettysburg in 1863 to dedicate the National Cemetery. It is time to rededicate the Lincoln Cemetery, both in his honor, and in honor of those Blacks who so nobly served the cause of Liberty by serving the United States of America.

Let us strive to honor these dead as Lincoln honored their white brothers in 1863. Let us raise the funds, and construct a monument to them on the grounds of Lincoln Cemetery, and a proper, tastefully designed and built propylaeum (entrance) from Washington Street into Lincoln Cemetery.

Let us resolve to do so in time for the Anniversary Week of 2007. Let us resolve this New Year to support the efforts of the Lincoln Cemetery Committee. Let us resolve this New Year to “…nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Stay tuned.


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