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Glassman: Celebrating Lincoln, the Colored Infantry and shepherds during Black History Month | COMMENTARY

The final resting place of several Black soldiers who helped save the Union is in my beloved Harford County. Their leader, President Lincoln, tended his divided flock through the Civil War and healed our nation. Black History Month and Lincoln’s birthday give this retired shepherd an opportunity share a portion of each.

During the first year or two after the battle of Fort Sumter, the Union held the position that the war was to reunify the country and not necessarily to abolish slavery. Thousands of runaway slaves flocked to join the Army of the Potomac.

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Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. 2018 FILE PHOTO
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. 2018 FILE PHOTO (Matt Button / Aegis staff / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford countian and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs led the way. On his own, he issued a statement that “negroes are, so far as the Army officers are concerned, free, and if employment meant military service, so be it.” President Lincoln soon followed his lead.

Once President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Union Army recruited Black soldiers quickly. By wars’ end, 179,000 Black men who were mostly former slaves had served in the Federal Union. Army records show that over 8,700 were from Maryland, which produced the second-largest number of colored troops from the Union states.

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Lincoln wrote to Grant, “The emancipation policy and the use of colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion and these successes could not have been achieved but for the aid of black soldiers.”

Several of these soldiers were Harford countians. Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, Harford’s only Medal of Honor recipient, was born a free man. Eight others were former slaves from the Havre de Grace area: Jeremiah Presbury, James Collins, Jesse White, Lloyd Ramsay, Peter Moses, Abraham Turner, Santa Bowser and Lewis Bowser. Records at the National Archives show that all eight also served with distinction in Lincoln’s army. Lewis Bowser’s war record is thoroughly documented because he had to sue the U.S. government in 1905 to collect his military pension. By the end of the war, military service for runaway slaves was to spell the end of slavery in Maryland.

President Lincoln often wrote of his leadership of these colored troops and in support of emancipation with the biblical reference of the Good Shepherd, guarding and protecting his flock.

In a speech he gave at the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, Lincoln’s message to the colored troops gathered there was inspiring:

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“Looking upon these many people, assembled here, these brave soldiers of the Union, a few years ago the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. They now guard my flock.”

He continued, “The shepherd drives the world from the sheep’s throat. For which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for destroying liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Hence we behold the process by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing this to define liberty; and thanks to them the wolf’s dictionary has been repudiated.”

Abraham Lincoln’s talk of flocks and sheep coincided with his reliance on the Bible in many of his writings. For a man who survived bankruptcy, election losses and personal tragedies, he realized through biblical passages that lives of shepherds who enjoyed greatness were preceded by lessons in humility.

Jacob tended sheep most of his life but told Joseph not to mention shepherding as the family business.

Moses spent 40 years shepherding in the desert before delivering his people.

David was ordered to stay behind to watch the sheep and goats while his brothers belittled him before they went off to battle the Philistines. Little did they know he was to be a shepherd before he was to be a king.

Lincoln’s lessons in humility also occurred before he became such a transformative figure in American history. He became the Good Shepherd he wanted to be. The Shepherd of the Union.

During the Civil War in my home village of Darlington, local shepherd Bill Worthington would kill a sheep and roast it to feed runaway slaves before sending them across the Susquehanna. The farmers of Darlington were generally the most tolerant people in the county and the area became a center of abolitionist activity. Nearby Swallowfields was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Slaves would move from the dark dampness of a stone icehouse to eat their mutton before mounting rafts at Shuresville landing, about where the Conowingo Dam stands today, for their journey north to freedom.

St. James AME Church at Gravel Hill. AEGIS FILE PHOTO
St. James AME Church at Gravel Hill. AEGIS FILE PHOTO (Ted Hendricks/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

At times, like Lincoln, we are all called to be shepherds. In fact, my call to public service came from the St. James AME Church 30 years ago. You see, I know of those soldiers who fought for Lincoln, whose graves lie in the cemetery at Gravel Hill, in Harford County. They are buried on the church property. It is a fitting resting place for these soldiers since two of them, Lewis Bowser and Abraham Turner, had served on the board of trustees of the Church.

I also pay tribute to The Rev. Violet Hopkins-Tann, who brought me to that cemetery as a young man to stand and be counted for these soldiers. She stood as a righteous shepherd against a proposed rubblefill only yards away from Lincoln’s resting colored troops.

So as we honor President Lincoln and Black History Month at the close of some the most tumultuous political strife in recent history, let us remember that we too may be called to be shepherds, indeed — shepherds of our beloved Union.

Barry Glassman, a Republican, is the Harford County Executive.

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