Shining more light on black Civil War soldiers — in Westminster and elsewhere

Several year ago, Dan Pyle was sitting on the sidewalk for the wreath-laying ceremony that Civil War buffs host annually at the gravesite of a Confederate soldier killed in Corbit's Charge, a skirmish that took place in Westminster on June 29, 1863.

That Pyle was recovering from foot surgery at the time put him closer to the ground than normal, and a ray of sunlight happened to illuminate four faint letters on a worn gravestone nearby: USCT.

"Holy cow," Pyle remembers thinking. Just 10 or 15 feet behind the headstone of a Confederate soldier was one for a member of the United States Colored Troops, the approximately 180,000 black soldiers who fought in the Union Army.

Since then, USCT Corporal Samuel Butler has had a growing part in the annual weekend devoted to remembering Westminster's role in the Civil War. On Saturday morning, organizers will place a new Civil War veteran's marker on Butler's gravesite at the Church of the Ascension, where Confederate Lt. John William Murray is also buried.

"The Confederate has his marker. We want to make sure [Butler] has his, too," said Steven Carney, chariman of the committee that organized the Corbit's Charge commemoration weekend. "Our organization has taken it on itself to honor both of them. We take care of both their graves."

A century and a half after the war, the USCT is emerging more fully from the shadows of history.

According to the Library of Congress and the National Archices, black soldiers comprised 10 percent of the Union Army. But to the extent they're known today, it's mostly from the 1989 movie "Glory," which focused on a unit from Massachusetts. But recognition of their contributions is growing as descendants and history afficionados research specific soldiers or units. The curiosity of one family descended from a black Civil War soldier in St. Mary's County, for example, led to a memorial and statue to the USCT being erected in Lexington Park in 2012.

Blacks volunteered and organized for service from the start of the war in 1861. But it was only after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that they were officially "received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."

By the war's end, according to the National Archives, 16 black soldiers had earned the Medal of Honor.

The discovery of Butler's grave at the church cemetery has led the Westminster group, the Pipe Creek Civil War Round Table, to "revamp" their annual event to include him.

"When you get down to it, all veterans of that era are American soldiers. They're still our veterans," said Carney, 28. "We preserve Civil War history on both sides. You can't have one story told and not the other."

Corbit's Charge, also known as the Battle of Westminster, was a brief and lopsided clash.

Fewer than 100 members of the 1st Delaware cavalry arrived on June 28, 1863, from Baltimore to guard the rail and road junction in Westminster, according to the town's website. Meanwhile, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was advancing northward through Maryland with about 6,000 cavalry soldiers. He arrived in Westminster the following day.

Union Capt. Charles Corbit led a cavalry charge against the confederates. Stuart's troops quickly overwhelmed the smaller Union force. Two Union troops were killed, and more than half the survivors were captured. Two Confederate officers also died.

But the skirmish led Stuart to spend the night in the area, delaying his arrival at what would turn out to be the pivotal clash of the war: the Battle of Gettysburg.

Stuart didn't reach the Pennsylvania town until July 2, after the fighting was already underway. Some believe that was a factor in the Confederacy's defeat there, from which it never recovered.

While the recently discovered Butler did not fight in Corbit's Charge, the Westminster Civil War group has tried to find out more about him.

His gravestone identifies him as a member of Company C, 32nd regiment of the USCT. Pyle obtained his service records from the National Archives, which say he was a 37-year-old, 5-foot 9-inch man with a "Mulatto" complexion who was born in Frederick County and had worked as a laborer.

He enlisted in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 1864, in and was promoted to corporal two months later. After the war ended in May 1865, his unit was mustered out on Aug. 22. The final document notes he was due a "bounty" of $300.

It is unknown how Butler ended up buried at the Church of the Ascension. The Episcopal parish did not return calls for comment. Pyle said Butler could have been from the area, giving him a reason to return after the war. Although his military records show he was born in Frederick County, part of the county became what is now Carroll County in 1837.

Pyle, 51, said he has always been interested in military history and now wants to focus some of his research on the USCT. A retired Army sergeant who now works as a real property manager for the Maryland National Guard, he hopes to write a book on USCT veterans who were born in Maryland.

Butler's gravestone says he died at age 45 in 1868, although his military records indicate he should have been 41 in that year. But Pyle said there sometimes can be discrepancies in ages and the spelling of names in records from that era.

And indeed, organizers of the weekend event initially thought a different Samuel Butler was buried in the church graveyard.

After discovering Butler's grave, they reached out to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The head of the Baltimore chapter, Tim McCoy, retrieved records of another Samuel Butler.

McCoy realized this week that he had the wrong one when he saw the Westminster gravestone identified Butler as a member of the 32nd regiment of the USCT.

McCoy's Samuel Butler was part of Company K of the 23rd regiment. He has a fascinating story of his own: Born in Fairfax, Va., he enlisted on May 13, 1864, as a "substitute for Marcus Vining of Cummington" in Massachusetts. (The Enrollment Act of 1863 allowed a draftee to pay another man to serve in his place.)

Like others who have become interested in researching Civil War history, McCoy, 50, has a personal link: He has five pro-Union ancestors from Eastern Tennessee who fought for the North.

His job with the Washington-based World Cocoa Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the industry would not seem to have anything to do with the Civil War. But his travels abroad allow him to seek out veterans gravesites in unlikely places. He has visited burial sites of Civil War veterans as far afield as Auckland, New Zealand.

McCoy, who will participate in the graveyard ceremony on Saturday, said he is happy to honor any USCT soldier.

"[These] soldiers weren't even considered citizens in many parts of the country," he said. "And [they] defied the odds to defend the U.S. and help ensure the 'new birth of freedom' referred to by President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Correction:

A previous version of this story misstated when Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart arrived at Gettysburg. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error. 

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