About 20 descendants of Christopher Thompson, a Black farmer who fought in the Civil War with the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, gathered yesterday at Amherst’s West Cemetery for the dedication of a monument on Thompson’s long-unmarked grave.
The monument identifies the section of the West Cemetery where African-Americans were buried, and names Thompson’s three brothers, John, James, and Henry, and a son Charles who also fought in the Civil War.
Local historian Robert H. Romer, a retired Amherst College physicist who has researched the cemetery’s African-American section, said 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors nationwide fought in the Civil War, which is “a figure every school child should know.” Of those 200,000, twenty came from Amherst, and “five had the last name Thompson,” said Romer, who serves on the Amherst Historical Commission.
William T. Harris, Thompson’s great-great-great grandson, and president and chief executive officer of Space Center Houston, expressed deep appreciation for the effort to acknowledge his ancestors, who were free men farming in the Amherst/Pelham area.
“As the war broke out, Christopher was approaching middle age,” Harris said, adding that Christopher Thompson and his wife, Matilda Richardson Bias, had four children at the time, ages seven to 21. The eldest, Charles, enlisted with his father and uncles.
“While we don’t know exactly what they were thinking or feeling, one can imagine a sense of duty and passion to defend their liberties as a reason for volunteering,” Harris said. “They no doubt endured prejudice … and knew of the plight of other African-Americans in the South who were still enslaved.”
Black soldiers often were given tougher assignments in the Union Army, Harris said, like trench-digging, and got inferior equipment. They were paid less and sometimes received inadequate medical treatment in racially-segregated hospitals. If captured by the Confederates, they risked being sold into slavery or hanged.
Despite all these dangers, Harris said his forefathers probably fought “in hope of a better life for their descendants.”
The Thompson men served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, with the exception of James, who served in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, and was badly injured. Two of the men did not return home – John, who died of injuries while training in Reedville, MA., and Henry, who succumbed to disease at the war’s close.
The surviving Thompson men “suffered the duration of their lives,” from war injuries, Harris said.
Although his ancestors did not live to see their sacrifices fully appreciated and honored, Harris said effort is still important. He quoted the philosopher Albert Schweitzer: “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown into flame by another human being.”
Some wiped away tears at the emotional event, where local historians and town officials acknowledged that Black Civil War soldiers were largely overlooked, locally and nationally. About 60 people gathered in the cemetery, which is best known for the grave of poet Emily Dickinson.
The Thompsons were honored with a moment of silence, a rifle salute by the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and playing of Taps by Will Borrell, a student at Amherst Regional High School. The crowd also sang “Happy Birthday” to Edythe D. Harris, Christopher Thompson’s great-great granddaughter, who will soon turn 90. Edythe Harris, who now lives in Greenfield, was raised in Amherst and holds degrees from UMass.
Amherst Select Board member Jim Wald said that history is very much on people’s minds these days, amid recent controversies over removal of Confederate monuments, and display of Confederate flags.
Amherst is among the communities that, despite their historical stand against slavery, neglected to honor the Black men who fought against it. “There are sins of omission, and commission,” Wald said, adding that it was the dedicated work of amateur historians which helped bring about the monument.
Wald noted that Thompson’s grave is just across a small path from a large obelisk memorializing an Amherst College president, William A. Stearns, but that social conditions put the graves “worlds apart.”
“This is a piece of history claimed, uncovered, and etched in stone,” said Meg Vickery, chairwoman of the Amherst Historical Commission.
Romer said that in May, 1864, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, which included four of the Thompsons, went to Point Lookout, Maryland, and then to Petersburg, where they fought in a siege that lasted until March 1865. The Confederate government evacuated on April 2, 1865. The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was among the triumphant Union forces that entered Richmond singing “John Brown’s Body,” a marching tune about the abolitionist John Brown.
“The Black residents of Richmond, who had suddenly become free, were delirious,” Romer said. “The white folks, not so much.”
Immediately after the war, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was sent to Texas on occupation duty, where conditions were poor and Union soldiers became sick, dying of scurvy and other diseases. Henry Thompson died before the cavalry was finally disbanded in October, 1865, and the surviving Thompson men began their journey home.
Romer, who has published a book called “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts,” said he doesn’t want the Black people who lived in this region to be lost to history. “To remember them, is to make them live again,” he said.
Romer’s effort to identify historic Black graves in the West Cemetery became the subject of a newspaper article about six years ago, around the same time that the Harris family had begun exploring its ancestry. A cousin realized that names mentioned in the article were the same as those the family had discovered in its research. Over time, the family, Romer, the Amherst Historical Commission, Amherst Senior Planner Jonathan Tucker, former Amherst Town Engineer James Smith, (now deceased), and several others coordinated in the effort to honor the Thompson family and help mark the African-American section of the West Cemetery.
This is a link to information on Romer’s book, “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts”: https://levellerspress.com/store/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=1042