In my first post of this series, I talked about relying on the HMDB to help me find things to explore on my trip. If it weren’t for the HMDB app (which is well worth the $2) that I have on my iPhone, I never would have found Unionville.
As I learned on Saturday, Unionville was a community of free black veterans and their families that sprang up after the Civil War. The land for the town was donated by a local Quaker family: the Cowgills. In fact, the original name given to the town by the residents was a nod to those donors: “Cowgilltown”. Eventually, the “Unionville” name stuck as a tribute to the army that won them their freedom. I have to imagine that life was anything but easy for these men – aside from the fighting they saw, they lived on the eastern shore of slave-holding Maryland in the period around the Civil War. Racial tensions must have been high after the war (to say the least). Perhaps having a town of their own was helpful.
It turns out that the town is really just a row of houses on either side of Maryland Route 370 (also called Unionville Road). On the southern end of town, there is a church with a cemetery behind and a Maryland Civil War Trails sign in the parking lot – this was clearly the cemetery I was looking for.
There are 18 USCT veterans buried here (USCT stands for United States Colored Troops, but on these headstones they are marked as “U.S.C.I.” which I assume means United States Colored Infantry). Several USCT units are represented by the men at rest here – I counted the 7th, 9th, 19th, and 39th – although most of the veterans here were members of the 7th USCT which was at least partly raised on the eastern shore.
I spent a few minutes walking through the cemetery, trying to find all the veterans. Sadly, swamp land seems to be encroaching on the southeast corner – which I imagine is particularly bad for a cemetery – and made for treacherous footing near more than a few grave sites.
It’s also a shame that this site is so far off the beaten path. As Civil War historians – amateurs and pros alike – we don’t do a very good job of telling the stories of these men. Many of the veterans in this cemetery were former slaves – even some who, like Frederick Douglass, “stole themselves”. These were men who didn’t just talk about “liberty”, they actually lived it. They know what that word means – probably better than any other men in American history.
While there are a few markers here, and the site is included on the Maryland Civil War Trails, how many regular people actually seek out those sites and visit them (let alone the USCT ones)? How will the general public ever learn about this place and these men? What can we do to better tell the story of the USCT? As a historical community, we need to come up with answers (and no, I don’t think the movie Glory is enough).
Veterans such as these men deserve a better fate than to be buried in a swamp and nearly forgotten on a back road in rural Maryland. These men were true heroes, and a new generation of children – of all races and backgrounds – should know what they did to advance the causes of freedom and equality.
Particularly these days, we can never have too many reminders.