By David Levinson
The role of Black Civil War veterans in Black communities in the North in the decades following the war is one that has been neglected in African American history. Recent research tells us that taken as a group these veterans’ lives were different in some ways than those of non-veterans, and the veterans often played a leading role in their communities. In the African American communities in the Berkshires and in the founding and early years of the Clinton Church, we often find them and their families as community leaders.
Black men in the Berkshires were enthusiastic enlistees in all-Black units, with over one-hundred serving, the largest number in Companies A and B of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the now-famous “Glory Regiment.” About twenty of the enlistees came from Great Barrington. Most were young farmworkers, while others worked as waiters, butchers, and carriage drivers.
After the war, some of those who survived returned to town, while others moved elsewhere. Several of the veterans and their families were members of the Great Barrington A. M. E. Zion society, which later became the Clinton A. M. E. Zion Church. Ones we can document as members, although there were likely others as well, were James Henry Jackson; his wife, Mary; and son, George; James and Sarah Elder Ferris; and Duesy Jackson, the widow of Henry Jackson.
The involvement of these men and their families surely increased the credibility of the church in the Black community and also the white community. Support from the white community was significant for financial reasons since mortgages and donations came from white-owned banks and white individuals; permits, from the town government; and construction was by white companies. Within both the Black and white communities, Black veterans were afforded a special status not afforded other Black men. While it did not bring them equality nor end discrimination, it did mean that these men if they so choose had a greater public presence and a sort of military-centered “equality” with white veterans. For example, Black Berkshire veterans were members of ten integrated Berkshire GAR (Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful veterans’ organization) chapters (in some other communities across the North, GAR chapters were segregated), marched in parades in uniform, and had their names inscribed with those of white veterans on Civil War monuments, and some had their stories told in local papers. Their steady pay during the war along with government support payments to their families, pensions (although payments were often reduced and/or delayed by racist Pension Bureau bureaucrats), and the broader range of employment and business opportunities open to them left some Black veterans better off financially than non-veterans. Perhaps because of their experiences outside the Berkshires and success in the war, some were also more aggressive in seeking skilled employment and opening their own small business.
Black veterans as well as the formerly enslaved Southerners who came north during and after the war also played a role in church events. Because the churches were the center of the Black communities, they served as the venue for annual events commemorating the Civil War, Black service (especially the 54th assault on Ft. Wagner), heroic individuals such as the 54th commander Robert Gould Shaw, and the January first celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. These events were typically a mix of prayer, hymns, music, patriotic speeches, testimonies to fallen comrades, and personal memories. For example, in 1884 Clinton member Egbert Lee spoke to the church society about his life enslaved in Tennessee before the war.
One of the veterans we know of was James Henry Jackson, an older cousin of W. E. B. Du Bois (four Du Bois cousins served in the 54th) who served with his older brother Abraham Jackson. The two other Du Bois cousins were Frank and Levi Jackson. Before the war, Jackson worked as a waiter. After the war, he became a cook, a more prestigious occupation, and one often filled by Black men. His son George followed as a cook and later owned a restaurant on Main Street. By 1880 Jackson achieved financial stability and the Jackson’s owned their own house and 1.4 acres on Castle Lane, running up into Castle Hill farm neighborhood rising above the plot where the church would be built in 1887. Mary Jackson was an early and active member of the church, hosting events in the Jackson home before the church was built. Young George was a member of the Mite Society. Mary remained active for many years and later found herself embroiled in two serious internal conflicts. In 1884 she and some other members were expelled during a dispute over church reorganization. She was later re-admitted. In 1914, she was a leader of the faction that opposed the pastor’s plan to sell the church and affiliate with the Congregational denomination as Great Barrington’s Second Congregational Church. After a very public fight, the court ruled in her faction’s favor, the sale to Black entrepreneur Warren Davis was reversed, and affiliation resumed as an A. M. E. Zion church.
A second veteran, John Ferris, worked as a waiter at the Collins Inn on Maple Avenue before the war. He and his wife, Sarah Elder Ferris, were church members in the 1880s and probably earlier. The couple evidently lived on his pension or the expectation of receiving it, awarded because of the “rheumatism” he suffered with during and following the war. It took a wait of eighteen years, until 1883, for him to begin receiving it, the first payment being a staggering $1,200. John died in 1887, and Sarah lived on his widow’s pension, first in Pittsfield and then back in Great Barrington from 1907 to 1921. The delay John Ferris endured in receiving his pension was hardly unusual for Black veterans, and we now can see that their efforts to get what was owed them was an early and prolonged battle in the emerging civil rights movement following the war.
Duesy Jackson was a member of Clinton from about 1885 to her death in 1902. Before her husband, Henry Jackson, died, the couple and their daughter Nelly lived in Pittsfield and later in Lee. Duesy relocated to Great Barrington after Henry died in 1883. Henry was not a veteran, although he was awarded the rank of lieutenant in 1864 in recognition of his role as a recruiter in Berkshire County and neighboring New York State of Black men to serve in the 54th and other units. He was a blacksmith, owned his own home and shop, and did much work for the Hancock Shakers. His financial success and recruiting placed Jackson among the three leading (in white eyes) Black men of Pittsfield.
While these are just three men and families in Great Barrington, we see the same pattern of greater veteran involvement in several other towns including Sheffield and Pittsfield, where Rev. Samuel Harrison, chaplain of the 54th, is honored.
David Levinson is a cultural anthropologist and a member of the Clinton Church Restoration advisory board. He is the author of The African American Community in Rural New England: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Clinton AME Zion Church, co-author of On the Other Side of Glory: The Berkshire Men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and editor of African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley.
Levinson, David, and Emilie Piper. (2011). On the Other Side of Glory: The Berkshire Men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Salisbury, CT: Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.
Shaffer, Donald. (2004). After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
Shepard, Ray Anthony. (2017). Now or Never! Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.