Saturday, July 30, 2011

Focusing Attention on Amherst's African-American Civil War Heroes

Because I was away on our Prague program, I missed Memorial Day in Amherst and was unable to take part in the parade or other commemorations, as I did last year.

As chance would have it, the marking of veterans' graves has recently been associated with some controversy. Last year, the problem was an epidemic of thefts of bronze grave markers (there were relatively prompt arrests but there have been no convictions to date). This year, it was the accidental failure to place holiday flags on the graves of African-American Civil War veterans. Retired Amherst College scientist and amateur historian Bob Romer both discovered and rectified the omission. There was no deeper meaning to the error, but the embarrassing incident did highlight the real problem—lack of public knowledge—which Town bodies, such as the Planning Department and Historical Commission, as well as private individuals, such as Bob (whom I first got to know when we were both on the Historical Commission) have been trying to address.

Here's the story by Scott Merzbach from the Amherst Bulletin. Scott reports on the holiday mix-up and Bob's plans for a formal ceremony later this year. He goes on to discuss related issues, such as the restoration of our Civil War memorial tablets. Although I was away as Scott was working on the story, we connected via email just as I returned, and so I, along with Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, briefly explained the Historical Commission's plans for restoration of the the historic 1730 West Cemetery, including the African-American section. In essence, our tentative proposal entails a landscape restoration and improvement, with the addition of some subtle memorial features.
Friday, June 24, 2011
Professor spurs effort to honor black soldiers who fought slavery

While Robert Romer was taking a walk the day before Memorial Day, he noticed that small American flags had been placed next to gravestones in the West Cemetery in honor of those who had served their country.

Conspicuous by their absence, though, were flags at the gravestones marking the final resting places of four black men who were Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Romer deduced that it was likely an oversight, not a slight, and quickly purchased flags for them at Hastings. But the incident got him thinking about how the town can better recognize the contributions that Amherst's African-American community made toward ending slavery.

It's a topic that holds great interest for Romer, a retired Amherst College physics professor who wrote the book "Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts." Now he's working to organize a ceremony, coinciding with the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War, to honor the black residents of Amherst who served in either the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment or the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry. More than 20 served; at least five lost their lives. Nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors participated in the Union's efforts overall.

"They were a large fraction of people who fought for the Union and this is a matter of how black men were willing to die for freedom," Romer said. "I think more people ought to be aware of it." (read the rest)
The newspaper story correctly notes that only four of our African-American Civil War veterans have marked graves. There is in addition a marker reading, "In Memoriam To Five Unknown Amherst Civil War Veterans."

One of the graves identified by name is that of Charles Finnemore, whose headstone, the report notes in passing, "was split in two, only recently being repaired." Finnemore, a Private in Company C of the Mass 54th, was wounded at the Battle of Olustee (or: Ocean Pond), the largest engagement fought in Florida (1, 2, 3).

When I made one of my periodic personal "inspections" of the Cemetery earlier this month—about two weeks after the news story appeared, and over 5 weeks after Memorial Day—I was pleased to see the flags still in place, here at Finnemore's grave.

The casual visitor will not be aware of how much work has already taken place in the cemetery, or what effort it took to get this single monument into this shape. Below is how it looked when I visited the section in April 2009, as we prepared to request funds for the aforementioned landscape improvements. (The Town had already authorized funding for headstone repairs, but the conservators had not yet reached this point on their priority list.)

Here, Civil War re-enactor Michael Coblyn stands next to the marker commemorating the unknown soldiers in the African-American section during a performance of "Conversations With the Past" for the Town's 250th anniversary celebrations, in May, 2009. The grave is honored with both bronze GAR markers and American flags, as is the custom in the spring, indicating that the absence of flags this year was indeed purely an oversight.

The Town secured the services of Monument Conservation Collaborative (MMC) of Norfolk, CT, which, using $ 145,000 in Community Preservation Act funds, was able to repair 249 of the most threatened stones in three sections of the oldest part of the Cemetery from 2008 through 2009. Cemetery conservation is a science, and one cannot casually clean or reconstruct historic funerary monuments. (Indeed, part of the work often consists in undoing the effects of bad earlier repairs.) Rather, one needs to take into account the material and integrity of the artifact, and the biological, chemical, and climatological threats to preservation. As MMC explains, contemporary practice has been "moving toward a 'conserve as found' approach," which seeks to to halt and mitigate any damage, but in the least intrusive way possible and without pretending to reverse all the effects of time. Accordingly, the Town's bid specifications were extremely detailed and of course included the requirement for appropriate documentation as well as treatment.

The case of Finnemore's gravestone nicely illustrates the process. The monument consists of a marble headstone (4 x 18 x 29 inches) and base. The conservators' first step had been to undertake a survey of the gravestones in the Cemetery, marking each on a grid map, assessing its current condition, and developing a conservation strategy.

Finnemore's grave is found at location Z.23, and assigned the index number 5.35 (representing Section 5, job number 35).

the blue arrow marks Finnemore's grave (in red)
the Finnemore gravesite seen from the air
The assessment, by MMC President Irving Slavid and Conservator and Partner Martin Johnson, classified the existing condition as category "2": "partial" damage (25-50%) in the form of separation from base, with breakage and some losses. The inscription was classified as "clear but worn." The conservation strategy consisted in reassembling and resetting the stone, and filling any gaps.

The inspection took place on July 7, 2008. Treatment, which comprised eight steps, began a year later, and took place over a full month, from June 2 through July 1, 2009.
1)  Conservators first removed old mortar and other debris from the setting surfaces of the headstone and base by hand and then treated them with "D/2 Biological Solution," a water-based biocidal cleaner intended to remove moss, algae, fungi, lichen, and other living organisms, and to prevent new growth. The stone is next "scrubbed with nylon brushes and water," and then "rinsed fully with water."
2) The setting surfaces are primed with Acryl 60 (diluted to 1:3), and "a relatively weak cement/lime-based grout (3/2/8) with fine aggregates (000)" is troweled on.
3) "Lower fragment is set plumb and level" on the base and braced for a minimum of 5 days.
4) The two broken (mating) edges of the headstone are treated with D/2 and rinsed.
5) The two halves are next attached to one another with Abatron A-5522 structural resin and "clamped and braced until cured." Any excess epoxy is then carefully removed by hand-chiseling.
6) In cases such as this, where the loss of some stone at the break could interfere with a proper fit and bonding, conservators fill cracks and gaps with color-matched RepliCal Marble filler.
7) The filled areas are misted with water to ensure a proper cure, and kept covered for a minimum of 3 days.
8) The partially cured filled surface areas are given a light acid washing (5% acetic acid or proprietary Limestone Afterwash, diluted to 1:4), and again thoroughly rinsed.
The result?



• The Town of Amherst website contains a page devoted to public cemeteries.  Entries include basic biographical information and a GIS map.

• As for Civil War veterans, the National Park Service has a wonderful resource in the form of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. The database of 6.3 million entries can be searched by side, name, state, rank, and branch of service. Results include a reference to the microfilm role with the original record.

• For all the reasons indicated above, cleaning historic gravestones is not something that one should undertake without proper training; it is too easy to do more harm than good. Fortunately, many government and private organizations sponsor workshops and training, particularly in the summer.

And, as it happens, because many American veterans lie beneath government-issued marble headstones, which are subject to staining and corrosion, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) just last week issued new final guidelines on the best practices for the cleaning of these delicate monuments.  The new policies ban bleach-based cleaners and mandate the use of precisely the sort of gentle aqueous biocidal cleaners used in our West Cemetery conservation. A general explanation and downloadable guide (pdf) can be found here.

No comments: