Memorial Day Address 2004

The Prince Hall Cemetery

Monday, May 31, 2004

Howard B. Winkler, President
Arlington Historical Society

It has been 371 days since we were last here. I needed the extra days to dry off from last year’s pouring rain. Before the service last year, I wondered if the Masons would show up in full force. I will never wonder again.

Prince Hall Cemetery

(Photo by Alan H. Jones)

Black Americans needed a place to bury their loved ones. The property was to be put in trust to be used exclusively as a Masonic burial ground to be known as Prince Hall Cemetery. Records indicate it was in use until about 1897 when for unknown reasons, it fell into disuse and as time passed it was forgotten.

On this day we honor those who have served our country. Today, I will talk about a subset of those who served but whose service has been in the shadow of history until recently. These are the persons of color who fought along Battle Road on April 19, 1775 and at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

As I recall, it was in 2000 that I received a phone call from one George Quintal. He wanted to know if the burial records of the Old Burying Ground in Menotomy recorded two men who had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. In the 18th century, what is now named Arlington was known as Menotomy. I had become an Arlington cemetery expert having just given a talk about our four burying grounds. I called him back a few days later and told him that no persons with the names he provided were buried in the Old Burying Ground, our oldest bury ground. Two years later, the Arlington Historical Society received a 260 page report from the National Park Service, titled Patriots of Color, African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill by George Quintal, Jr.

Quintal lists 119 men of color in his report, which has since been published as a book, and I started to think about how many patriots of color of the revolutionary war I had heard about. I recalled seeing two patriots of color on commemorative postage stamps, that is, Salem Poor and Peter Salem. Salem Poor served at Bunker Hill and in other campaigns until his discharge in 1780. At Bunker Hill, Poor was deemed “a brave and gallant soldier” by 14 officers who were present at the battle. Peter Salem’s likeness on his commemorative stamp was taken from John Trumbull’s monumental painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was also at Battle Road and Saratoga. Another patriot of color I recalled was Prince Esterbrook who stood with the militia on Lexington Green on the morning of April 19. He was wounded on that day, and is remembered along with the other Lexington militia who stood on the Green against the Regulars in a beautiful diorama located nearby in the Chamber of Commerce Building.

Because I live in Arlington, the two must important patriots of color were David Lamson and Cuff Whittemore. Lamson had served in the French and Indian War and was exempt from service because of his age. According to the history, after General Gage, Military Governor of the Province of Massachusetts, ordered 700 men to march to Concord, he soon ordered 1,000 more to march with a convoy of supply wagons. The supply wagons got separated, and Lamson because of his military experience led 11 other exempts in the capture of these wagons. These men are now known collectively as the Old Men of Menotomy. Lamson is now remembered by a street named David Lamson Way here in Arlington near where the capture took place. Another Arlington patriot of color was Cuff Whittemore. He served at Bunker Hill and Saratoga. It was at Saratoga where he was captured, ordered to look after General Burgoyne’s horse, and proceeded to ride him into the American lines. I would not have wanted to have been the person who broke the bad news to the commanding general of the British army.

I have mentioned five of the 119 patriots of color who served along Battle Road and at Bunker Hill. Quintal is meticulous in support of his findings, and has three categories of authenticity. The first is based on primary records; the second, on secondary sources, and the third on probable evidence such as given names that were typically borne by men of color. If all of the probables are excluded there remain 50 patriots of color who served. These are far more than the writers of history books for school children of my period knew about or were willing to write about.

I would like to read an extraordinary observation of courage made by a sixteen year-old named John Greenwood on his way to Bunker Hill. It is preserved in his journal in which he wrote:

Everywhere the greatest terror and confusion seemed to prevail, and as I ran along the road leading to Bunker Hill it was filled with chairs and wagons, bearing the wounded and dead, while groups of men were employed in assisting others, not badly injured, to walk. Never having beheld such a sight before, I felt very much frightened, and would have given the world if I had not enlisted as a soldier; I could positively feel my hair stand on end.

Just as I came near the place, a negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt him much as he did not seem to mind it; he said no, that he was only going to get a plaster put on it, and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me; I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.

I will now end with a quote in Quintal’s report attributed to Harriet Beecher Stowe ‘In considering the services of the Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, we are to reflect on them as far more magnanimous, because rendered to a nation which did not acknowledge them as citizens and equals, and in whose interests and prosperity they had less at stake… bravery, under such circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit.’

Thank you all and I hope to see you next year.

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