Ask Lou Giles about Samuel Neale, and the amateur historian will rattle off how Neale was one of the few Black men who served in the Maryland Militia during the War of 1812, helped tend to wounded soldiers at two major battles and suffered a gunshot wound. Decades later, he even won a military pension from the state.
To Giles, that’s more than enough to qualify Neale for an honor the United States has granted countless veterans — a free gravestone.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees it differently. Like any African American enrolled in the state militia during the so-called Second War for Independence from Britain, Neale had to do so under a nonmilitary rank — in his case, “servant.” The VA says this renders him ineligible for the honor.
That line of thinking, framed by the white-supremacist mindset of the early 1800s, amounts for Neale’s supporters to an extension of attitudes the federal government is striving to leave behind.
“I don’t know if it’s racism or just sticking to old regulations because it’s easier that way. But they’re using standards that were in place 200 years ago, and it’s impossible for even a Black hero to meet them,” Giles says. “I don’t think most Americans believe that’s how we should treat someone who risked his life for his country.”
The dispute pits Giles, historians and veterans’ advocates against civil servants who say their hands are tied. Democratic U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown has entered the fray, introducing a bill he says would help Black veterans of America’s early wars receive the honors they deserve.
Giles says the case may be less dramatic than the Battle of Baltimore, but is a good test of what the U.S. government is now made of.
“It’s a battle worth fighting,” he says.
‘A perfect opportunity’
The Millersville resident has long had a special interest in the war, a conflict that took place in part because a young U.S. sought to end Britain’s interference with its sea trade. Giles’ fourth great-grandfather, barrel maker Joseph Giles of Baltimore, was in a militia regiment. With some 4,000 other Marylanders, including Neale, those troops waylaid the British Army at the Battle of North Point in 1814.
Lou Giles, his descendant, is a member of the Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland. After his retirement, he was engaged in a project to locate veterans’ graves when he happened on a post on an 1812 bicentennial blog that told of an extraordinary participant.
Samuel A. Neale, it said, was a Black man who enrolled in Maryland’s overwhelmingly white citizen-soldier force — a rarity because, unlike the U.S. Army and Navy, the state militia effectively barred Blacks from participating. Researchers have been unable to determine whether he was enslaved or free at the time, nor whether he enlisted in the militia or was conscripted.
His job, the piece reported, was as “servant” to William Hammond, a physician and officer in the regiment. Giles knew of many young white men who did the same in the war, though they were given military ranks such as “officer’s aide.”
What further intrigued him was how far beyond his job title Neale ventured. According to Scott S. Sheads, the article’s author and a retired Fort McHenry historian, Neale carried Hammond’s surgical instruments “into the field” and was “armed and equipped as a soldier in order to fight the enemy when hard pressed.” Giles says Neale, in effect, served in a role U.S. armed forces would later call a combat medic.
The story cited as sources a variety of newspaper articles from the 1870s, including one in The Sun, that described Neale’s campaign to win a military pension from the state five years after the Civil War. An 1872 obituary in the Frederick Examiner said he “served his country with fidelity during the war of 1812.”
The Examiner reported Neale’s remains “were interred in the Catholic grave-yard.” An attendant at St. John the Evangelist Church in Frederick confirmed to Giles that a Samuel Neale was buried there in 1872. He lies in an unmarked grave beside the marked resting place of his son, Samuel Jr., one of the first Black college professors in Western Pennsylvania and a civil rights advocate.
For Giles, the federal headstone program immediately came to mind.
“We had never located the grave of a single Black veteran of the War of 1812, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to celebrate just such a man,” Giles says.
It would prove more complex than he thought.
‘Fully armed, and ready to defend’
Newspaper coverage of Neale’s petition for a pension said he persuaded at least three Maryland circuit judges to endorse it — and argued successfully for the Maryland legislature to approve it.
Of the famously chaotic Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814, Neale was quoted in one article as describing how “the British opened fire from the hill, and with their rockets set the broom sedges and fences on fire.” As he waited for the British to arrive at North Point in September, he’s quoted as recalling, “I was on the ground fully armed, and ready to defend the ladies and children, who were crying in a heart-rending manner.”
The all-white legislature awarded Neale $80 a year for life. Texas Christian University historian Gene Allen Smith, the author of “The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812,” says “they would never have done that if members of his old regiment hadn’t been there to confirm his service personally.”
Giles put these and other documents in the packet he sent to the VA in October. He felt they fit the agency’s guidelines: An applicant must be “a Veteran who didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge” and “buried in an unmarked grave.”
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration responded two months later.
“There was no qualifying service to establish eligibility for a Government-furnished headstone,” read the letter signed by Zachary Becvar, a VA program assistant.
Giles got back to work, reaching out to the National Archives and Records Administration. Researchers there turned up 200-year-old copies of a muster roll signed by Neale’s commanding officer, which listed the Hagerstown man as a “servant” to Hammond within a 13-man cavalry unit. Giles submitted the document as part of an appeal in February.
The cemetery administration replied in May.
“The documentation you provided is not for military service,” read the letter, signed with a name Giles could not decipher. “We have made no favorable findings relative to the claimed benefit.”
Since Giles had included “documentation of military service,” he believed the VA did not consider the “servant” role to be a military position — something the agency confirmed to The Baltimore Sun in emails responding to questions.
Chris Christou, a former president of the War of 1812 society and the author of four books on the war, said he was shocked that the VA seemed to fall back on what amounted to an anachronistic technicality when so much other information had been submitted.
“If that packet came to my desk, I’d reach out to somebody up the food chain and say, ‘You know what? There’s more to this story. How can we make this happen for this man?’ They seemed to be saying, ‘We’ve made our decision, and we’re sticking with it.’”
Christou pointed out that the agency has taken the position at a time when the government, including the military, is promoting the contributions of people of color to the nation’s history.
“For a man who put his life on the line to be stymied by his own government is very upsetting. There has to be a gray area. If you have to change the rules retroactively, change the rules.”
Headstones for Honor Act
Congress passes the laws that govern the awarding of headstones, and the VA lacks the authority to overrule those laws, Les’ A. Melnyk, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, said in two emails to The Sun.
To Neale’s backers, it comes down to how the agency interprets and applies the rules. They believe the flaw lies in the interpretation of the word “servant.” At the time Neale joined the militia, it meant someone who tended to a white officer, taking care of his needs and keeping him ready to do his job.
VA officials have said the muster rolls suggest Neale was “in the employ of” Hammond, not the military. Historians like Smith counter that it was common for the military to pay officers and officers to pay “servants.”
Also, historians say research now shows that those who attended doctors were trained in weaponry.
“Servants of a surgeon would be expected not only to assist the surgeon, but to defend the surgeon,” says Glenn F. Williams, the former senior historian of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, which decides on the appropriate use of history and records throughout the Army. “I don’t see why Neale would not have shouldered a weapon.”
The VA cited more reasons in its responses to Giles and The Sun. According to its May letter to Giles, the award of a state pension “has no bearing” on decisions about VA headstones; Neale fought in a state unit, not a federal one, and the newspaper stories Giles furnished aren’t official documentation.
The Morning Sun
Neale backers counter that the Maryland Militia was essentially “federalized” during the defense of Maryland, that hundreds of Maryland militiamen from that campaign were awarded headstones, and that when it comes to finding official documentation of War of 1812 service, it’s a rarity even to find muster rolls.
“What you have here is a situation where the VA may well have the letter of the law on their side. But the question is whether it isn’t a better idea to honor the spirit of the law?” Williams says.
Last year, Giles contacted representatives for Brown, the Maryland congressman and a Black veteran. Brown wrote the Headstones for Honor Act. It would empower the secretary of the VA to “furnish headstones, markers, and medallions” for individuals in Neale’s situation. The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs in March with bipartisan support.
“Black Americans have been fighting for our country since before our founding,” said Brown, who is now the Democratic nominee for attorney general. “Our country owes them and their descendants a debt of gratitude. Properly marking their headstones is just one small token of the respect and dignity they have earned.”
Giles has asked for a formal hearing by a VA judge who could change the ruling. The process could take a year.
The society plans to mark Neale’s grave itself, if Giles loses that last round. A headstone would cost about $200.
“Mr. Neale was in the thick of battle, taking care of wounded soldiers on behalf of his nation,” Christou says. “Why wouldn’t you give him a marker? It’s time to give the man his due.”