Monument Dedicated to Amherst Black Civil War Veteran Christopher Thompson, Brothers & Son Who Fought for Union Army

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.

thompson stone
This stone, first installed in January and dedicated yesterday, honors veteran Christopher Thompson and helps identify the African-American area of the West Cemetery. Community Preservation Act funding of $5,000 helped put in place.

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.

William T. Harris, a descendant of Christopher Thompson, is president of Space Center Houston, the visitor center for the NASA Johnson Space Center.  Harris, who was raised in Greenfield, said his late brother Daniel Harris discovered the connection to Civil War veterans buried in Amherst while researching family history.  “I am thankful this came to light,” William Harris said.

“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.”

The back of this stone honors all five Thompson family members who fought in the Civil War. Henry and John, who were brothers of Christopher Thompson, did not survive the war.

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.

Members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars provided a rifle salute at yesterday’s dedication.
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.”

The descendants of Black Civil War veteran Christopher Thompson gathered in Amherst yesterday afternoon, for the dedication of a monument to Thompson and his brothers and son who also served. The woman in a long black coat (front row) is Edythe D. Harris, the great-great granddaughter of Christopher Thompson. To her right is historian Robert H. Romer, who located Thompson’s grave while researching the African-American section of the cemetery.  Some Thompson descendants remain in Western Massachusetts, living in Amherst, Greenfield,  Pittsfield and Springfield.

“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.

Reynolds Winslow, who was the master of ceremonies for yesterday’s event, is a former chair of the Amherst Human Rights Commission. Winslow said he hopes the new monument will help spark interest in history for the millenial generation.

“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.

Christopher Thompson’s great-great granddaughter Edythe D. Harris, a 1946 graduate of Amherst High School, expressed her gratitude to the many people who helped establish the new monument.

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”:


gilbert roberts
Of Note: The Harris family can also trace its history to the famed banjo player Gilbert Roberts, above, who lived on Snell Street in Amherst, and was Edythe Harris’ father. Gilbert Roberts, who played with Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong, was the son of Perry Roberts, a former Maryland slave emancipated at age 16, who came to Amherst and built a home on Hazel Avenue.  Here is a link to music by Gilbert Roberts’ band.


3 thoughts on “Monument Dedicated to Amherst Black Civil War Veteran Christopher Thompson, Brothers & Son Who Fought for Union Army

  1. This story neglected to mention that after CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON 1st wife died Matllda BIAS. That CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON married Lavinia Gould
    She is the one who collected his Veterans Pension.

    Ad as for cousin Gil Roberrs
    Amherst History always seems to focus on my relatives and other Amherst residents as being soley Blacks and leaving out THEIR Native American heritage even in stories like

    Hope one day the town if AMHERST ,Ma will correct it’s omissions so the Descendants of it’s City so they can know the true History of their residents and Ancestor and celebrate it’s
    Black,Native & EUROPEAN History
    Thank you
    Ray H BROOKS


    1. Thank you for your comments Mr. Brooks. I did not intentionally omit the information you have shared here. I did not have it when I wrote the article. I would be very interested to hear more about Gil Roberts, and his Native American heritage.
      Best regards.
      Marla J


  2. Hi there, I am working on a piece regarding Gil Roberts’ time with the Blue Ribbon Syncopators of Buffalo. I would love to get in contact with his family if possible. I will leave my info in the details section. I look forward to hearing from you soon! Regards, Colin Hancock


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