Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Black veterans formed GAR posts to remember their service, do public good. The Lincoln Presidential Library is ensuring precious post documents endure

(Clockwise from top left) Delany post charter, Maj. Martin R. Delany, damaged charter from other post
(charter photos: ALPLM), Gustavus or Henry Booth with 5th Mass. Cavalry; same unit as Lewis Thompson
(Richard Carlile Collection as printed in Military Images; click all to enlarge)
Pvt. Enos Bond and the 17
th U.S. Colored Troops fought at the Battle of Nashville. Pvt. Lewis H. Thompson’s 5th Massachusetts Cavalry took part in an assault on Confederates near Petersburg. And Sgt. Shederick Conaway of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment survived the pitched fighting at Fort Wagner, the climactic scene in the film “Glory.”

Years later, these three men and seven other African-American veterans in Chicago founded Martin R. Delany Post #663 of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans. (Delany, an influential abolitionist and author, was the first Black field officer in the U.S. Army. Photo below)

The Delany post met for at least a few years to socialize, discuss their war experiences and trauma, and support monuments, memory and charity – no doubt proud to have helped end slavery in the United States.

The charter of Post #663, which cemented the bond among Conaway and the others, recently underwent conservation at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. Experts at ALPLM, which has 269 charters of GAR posts in its collection, have been cleaning, mending and rehousing scores of the documents.

“During their active lives (as documents) the charters were very often displayed, framed or unframed and exposed to light and unfavorable storage conditions,” Christopher Schnell, ALPLM manuscripts manager, told the Picket in an email.

Schnell says the GAR charters, made official with signatures and foil seals, are a boon for researchers and historians, and that’s why restoration is crucial.

“By working on individual documents, or by taking the time to examine an individual set of records, we can raise up the stories of underrepresented members of our collective past,” Schnell wrote in an article about the GAR foundational documents.

Member of 54th Massachusetts survived Fort Wagner

We don’t know exactly how the 10 men who started the Delany post may have known each other. Two, Lewis McGowan and Moses McGowan, served in the 109th USCT and may have been related. It’s also difficult to ascertain how many may have been born into slavery.

1850 census lists Robert Conaway and  his children, including Shederick
Conaway is believed to have been born free in New Bern, which on the eve of the war had one of the largest concentrations of free people of color in North Carolina, according to the Craven County visitors center. (One source says he was actually born in Newton, N.C.)

His family moved to Cleveland, where Conaway worked as a waiter before enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts.

A look at fold3.com, military and pension records and genealogy indexing services show multiple variations of the soldier’s first name (Shad, Shadrack, Shedrick, Shederick, Shaderick, Shadrick) and last name (Conway, Conaway).

List of Delany post members, including Conaway. Click to enlarge (Chicago History Museum)
Conaway was 19 when he enlisted in a Boston neighborhood in April 1863. One history says he was wounded at Fort Wagner.

The 54th Massachusetts saw action at Olustee in Florida (Conaway was in the hospital at the time) and on islands around the Charleston area of South Carolina.

Conaway participated with Company G in the Battle of Honey Hill west of Beaufort, S.C, in November 1864, according to Schnell.

The soldier, who was promoted twice, was mustered out in August 1865.

The soldiers home in Milwaukee, which still provides services today (Wikipedia)
“After the war he went back to work in Cleveland and Chicago restaurants and hotels, married, and had at least one child. Near the end of his life, he moved into the Soldiers Home hospital in Milwaukee suffering from ’asthma’ and ‘heart disease,’” Schnell told the Picket.

Conaway died in February 1894 at age 50. He’s buried at a national cemetery in Milwaukee. I have been unable to come up with a photo of Conaway or any of the other nine charter members.

GAR was widespread, powerful and integrated

The names of the Delany post’s charter members – Bond (a retired police officer), Conaway, the McGowans, Thompson, William Banks of 1st Michigan Colored Infantry, William French of the 109th USCT, Peter French of the 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry, Walter E. Johnson of 14th Regiment, Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, and Alexander Jackson, 17th USCT, were written into history through the September 1888 charter. (Schnell believes the post eventually had 26 members.)

The GAR got its start in Illinois in 1866 and posts spread across the United States, with a peak membership of 400,000 in 1890. The Delany charter was issued three years after the death of its namesake. Illinois had nearly 800 posts.

It had a profound effect on late-19th century politics, with its membership providing the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Grant, with a solid voting bloc in Northern states,” according to ALPLM. “The organization used this political power to encourage the federal government to establish a robust veteran’s pension program.” (GAR medal left, courtesy of ALPLM)

By being a racially integrated public institution, the GAR was extremely unusual for its time. Illinois had about 48 integrated posts, while Chicago has at least two all-Black (including Delany #663) and 37 all-white posts.

Historian Barbara A. Gannon, in “The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic” (UNC Press, 2011),” wrote that “although black veterans still suffered under the contemporary racial mores, the GAR honored its black members in many instances and ascribed them a greater equality than previous studies have shown.”

Gannon told the Picket that before her book, people often described the GAR as a segregated group under the assumption that the posts were segregated by direction of the organization. Instead, she says, black veterans asked the state GAR to charter their posts and they had reasons for doing so.

“For example, they named their post after a famous African-American in the Civil War as was their prerogative.” Gannon says. “They did so to remind white Americans of their Civil War experience.”

According to Schnell, black posts participated alongside white and integrated posts in traditional GAR  activities “to observe Memorial Day cemetery exercises and church services to honor the Civil War dead, to march together in patriotic parades, such as one held in Chicago to commemorate the Constitution centennial in 1887, and to attend annual meetings, like when the Martin R. Delany post joined the 7,000 member Illinois delegation to attend the national ‘encampment’ at Detroit in 1891.”

James Lewis Henry (right, ALPLM photo), a veteran in the John Brown post in Chicago, was a statewide leader in the organization and helped organize suc activities. A free black man, Lewis fought in Federal cavalry units and later became a lawyer.

The Delany post, like others, maintained a small charity account for members in need, but other than holding meetings, “we don’t know about the inner workings of the group,” said Schnell.

The Chicago History Museum has a roster book and minute book for the Delany GAR post.

While the surviving charter at ALPLM is from 1888, the CHM roster book is marked 1879-1890. It’s possible the post’s first charter had to be replaced.

CHM reference librarian Maggie Cusick says the minute book is more narrative and contains about 60 pages of content.

One of the pages about the post’s activity is written by acting adjutant Bushrod Washington.

A soldier by that name served in the 26th USCT, according to the National Park Service. Washington, a Virginian, died in Chicago in 1890, just a month after making the entry.

One of the Delany post volumes at the Chicago History Museum (Courtesy of CHM)
Mending these important documents follows a formula

When GAR posts ceased operating (the date for the Martin R. Delany post is unclear), records were turned to headquarters and folded several times. Charters often were 17 inches by 22 inches. The Illinois State Historical Society for many years held them once the GAR became inactive. The ALPLM eventually took charge of the documents.

“When retrieving post records for researchers, ALPLM staff would occasionally find charters, or the remains of them, that had to be placed on hold for conservation before they could be viewed or imaged,” says Schnell.

In 2019, conservators Bonnie Parr and Ginny Lee began the exacting work of carefully “relaxing,” or unfolding long-folded documents, cleaning, mending, removing acid and rehousing them (Mylar sleeves and oversize folders stored in flat drawers).

While the Delany charter needed just basic cleaning and mending, other documents are in pieces, officials say. About 40 GAR charters in the most serious condition are yet to be treated. (At left, a Delany post record with names of members. Courtesy ALPLM, click to enlarge)

“There have been a few charters with notes to the effect that they are replacements for originals destroyed by fire (and even one destroyed by a tornado). I’ve wondered about those incidents and how they affected the GAR members of those posts,” says Parr.

As an example of her work, Parr sent a photo of the much-folder, yellowed and brittle charter for Post #468 in Downers Grove. She believes some of its wear is due to long-term light exposure while in a GAR hall.

Parr recently completed work on a charter for the Gov. Richard Yates Post #687, an African American chapter, in Jacksonville, Ill. She put the document in a humidity chamber – made up of a rack in a sink, with damp towels nearby. The sink was covered with plastic. During the day, she gradually unfolded the paper as it “relaxed” from high humidity. The paper was dried and flattened between blotters.

“My satisfaction comes from taking the folded paper – which can’t be handled without damage – through conservation treatments that unfold and stabilize the fragile paper so that it can be read and be accessible for research,” says Parr.

Post #687 charter before unfolding, treatment area and the dried document (Courtesy ALPLM)
Parr uses specific tools during the process of lining – which involves a support system for the document while undergoing the final stages of conservation.

“I use a sheet of acid-free Japanese tissue for the lining and wheat starch paste to attach the GAR document to the tissue. I let it air dry for several days,” she says.

"Then, I use a metal spatula to carefully lift the tissue/charter off the lining surface, trim the excess tissue from the edges, deacidify the document, place it in a polyester film (a chemically inert plastic) sleeve, and send it back to the Manuscripts Department (where it ‘lives’).

The #687 charter during the lining process and the final product (Courtesy ALPLM)
Schnell tells the Picket the GAR charters are among the most heavily used manuscripts at the library.

“People interested in family history use the records to search for their veteran forebearer. Local historians seek information about the veterans (and their activities) who lived in their communities in the past,” he says.

Museums have asked for reproductions of the documents for purposes of exhibit. The charter conservation project was started because a county historical society asked for a scan of their local post charter and it needed repair before digital scanning.

With restored charters as a starting point, we can continue the GAR’s work of honoring the sacrifices of Civil War veterans by going beyond the ink and paper to recover the stories of the people who once fought to restore the Union and end slavery,” Schnell wrote in his blog post.

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