A Burial in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery

Sue Boardman Collection

   His name was Clifford Henderson. He was from Ohio, served in the U.S. Army, but he did not serve in the Civil War, although he is buried in the Civil War section. Who was Clifford Henderson? Why was he buried here? If he did not serve in the Civil War, when did he serve? And, where did this photograph come from? Let us start with the last question first.
    Sue Boardman, Leadership Program Manager with the Gettysburg Foundation and Licensed Battlefield Guide, gave me a copy of this photograph several weeks ago and graciously allowed me to do a post about it. There was no information on the image to identify when it was taken or who was being buried. The only evidence was what the image offered. I was fascinated. Who was this being buried? Who were these soldiers? Clearly, it was an African American soldier. According to the most thorough study of Soldiers’ National Cemetery burials by John Busey, the only black soldier buried in the cemetery was Henry Gooden, of the 127th USCT, who died after the war on August 3, 1876 in Carlisle, and was reburied in the U.S. Regulars section of the cemetery on November 8, 1884. But the soldier being buried here could not have been Gooden. Look at the image again. It is hot out. People have umbrellas up to shield them from the sun. This image was not taken in November. Also, the soldiers preparing to fire a 21-gun salute are wearing uniforms of the late 1890’s U.S. Army, well after the date of Gooden’s reburial. But the burial is clearly within the Civil War section of the cemetery. I searched our files in the park library and found not a shred of evidence about any other black soldier buried in the Civil War section of the cemetery besides Gooden. So, I called Dr. Ben Dixon, a professor at State University of New York at Oneonta, who has conducted the most exhaustive research into the history of Gettysburg National Military Park of anyone I know, and asked if he knew of any African American soldiers buried in the Soldiers’ Cemetery after Gooden. Ben checked his files and got back to me. There were four African American soldiers, who served in volunteer regiments in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War, died of disease in the fall of 1898, and were buried in the cemetery. Their names and dates of burial were Clifford Henderson (Sept. 8), Emmert Martin (Nov. 6), and Nicholas Farrell (Nov. 28), all of the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Battalion, and Harry S. Prager (Sept. 19), of Company H, 2nd Tennessee Infantry.
    Two pieces of evidence established that the burial in the photograph is that of Clifford Henderson. The perspective of the photograph rules out that it was taken from the Illinois section of the cemetery where Prager was buried. It had to be one of the three men from Ohio. The date of Henderson’s burial, September 8, is the only one that can account for the heat, umbrellas, and full foliage on the trees. So, thanks to the research of Dr. Ben Dixon, we now know that there are five burials of African American soldiers in the Civil War section of the Soldiers’ Cemetery, but four of those soldiers were Spanish American War veterans who were buried here because it was the closest National Cemetery.


Sue Boardman Collection

Same view today. White paper is placed at the same location as the white shirt or towel below Henderson's grave. NPS


   I do not know anything about Clifford Henderson or what specifically caused his death. His battalion consisted of three companies of the 9th Ohio National Guard recruited from Springfield, Columbus, and Xenia, Ohio, in April 1898. In August a fourth company was recruited in Cleveland. What was unique about the battalion is that its officers were also African American, including their commander, Major Charles Young, a West Point graduate who had served in the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry. The battalion spent most of the war at Camp Alger, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. After the armistice on August 12, the battalion was ordered north to Camp Meade, Pennsylvania, near Middletown, which is close to Harrisburg. This is where Henderson, Martin, and probably Farrell, died. The battalion remained at Camp Meade until November 17 when it was ordered to Summerville, South Carolina, where it mustered out on January 28, 1899.
    These are the facts, but this photograph speaks to a larger story than an interesting burial in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Look at the crowd gathered for the burial. The men closest to Henderson’s grave are white. They appear to be workmen who may have dug the grave. But there are other white people in the crowd who are not workers. Perhaps they were simply curious since burials in the cemetery were not a common occurrence. We have black U.S. Soldiers preparing to fire a salute to a comrade. The bugler is just finishing “Taps.” As we look at Henderson’s grave and casket our eyes are drawn up to Lady Liberty, standing atop the Soldiers’ National Monument and gazing down upon the soldiers and civilians below. Nearby is where President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address nearly thirty five years earlier and spoke of a “new birth of freedom.” Yet in 1896, three years before Clifford Henderson died of disease while serving his country, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7 to 1 on the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld that state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities and transportation was constitutional under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” This latter doctrine proved a cruel joke to men like Henderson and his comrades, particularly when they served in Virginia and South Carolina, where facilities for blacks were separate but rarely equal.
    The irony in this image is palpable. We see young African American men who have volunteered to serve their country, standing by the grave of a comrade who died while in the service to that country, beneath the gaze of Liberty and where Lincoln’s words of a “new birth of freedom” still echo, at the same time that the highest court of the government each of these men volunteered to protect, has overwhelmingly declared racial segregation to be legal. The image is complicated – like the legacy of the Civil War. As we contemplate the story of this photograph we might feel anger at the injustice of it all, or cynicism at the empty promise of true liberty and equality. But I see inspiring courage in these men; the courage to serve despite the injustice inflicted upon them, and a fierce hope, that liberty, freedom and true equality were not just empty slogans.

D. Scott Hartwig

Update 4/27/12 – Thanks to the help and research of Eric Fischer, a reader of this blog, I have updated and corrected this post.  Clifford’s correct name, established by three separate newspaper sources Eric uncovered, was Clifford Henderson, not Clifford Henderson Wallace, and he was from Springfield, Ohio. 


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