Joseph Wilson, the town’s only known black Civil War soldier, should not have a grave marker so deteriorated it reflects only a life of hardship.
Not that Mr. Wilson, a sharecropper who died young from tuberculosis, had much in life, but his gravestone should reflect his remarkable service and tenacity, said author James J. Coogan Jr., who lives on Main Street in Sandwich Village.
Mr. Coogan hopes to raise enough money to replace Mr. Wilson’s worn-down tombstone, which sits atop the soldier’s grave in a wooded town conservation area off Quaker Meetinghouse Road near Oakcrest Cove.
Mr. Coogan recently asked the Sandwich Community Preservation Committee members whether if they would consider granting a small sum to update the humble gravesite.
The land on which it sits, according to research by Mr. Coogan and local history buff William F. Daley, was the site of Mr. Wilson’s small farm more than 130 years ago.
“He must have been very poor and it is likely that he practiced subsistence farming to live. The pauper records prove that he had little or no cash on hand,” Mr. Daley wrote in a report this March to the Sandwich Historical Commission. “His early death....is further proof of the hardships of his life.”
Mr. Coogan unearthed some more details about the farm.
“A record of agricultural production from that period shows the rental property was about 75 acres of meadow—about 5 in ‘tillage,’ and 8 acres of woodland worth in total about $500.00,” Mr. Coogan wrote in a recent newspaper column.
Mr. Wilson worked his farm with his wife, Caroline Philips of Mashpee, whom he married in 1874, according to records from the time.
And those are the only verifiable facts about the latter part of the soldier’s life. Mr. Wilson’s earlier, more mysterious history has been pieced together by Mr. Coogan and Mr. Daley.
Here are some of their conclusions, based on their respective investigations:
Mr. Wilson’s birthdate is unknown, probably because he was a slave.
He enlisted as an infantryman in the Union Army in what would eventually become Company I, 73rd Louisiana Regiment, US Colored Infantry.
He was “mustered in” to an outfit originally known as the 1st Louisiana Native Guard in New Orleans on September 27, 1862. His age was listed as 19, which, if accurate, would have put his birth year as 1843.
Conflicting records list his state of birth as Virginia or Maryland.
“We have to wonder how Wilson got to Louisiana if his birthplace was either Virginia or Maryland. Was he perhaps sold to someone in the deep South? We don’t know,” Mr. Coogan has written.
Mr. Daley’s speculation runs along the same line.
“Perhaps he was later sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner in Louisiana,” Mr. Daley said. “It is very likely that he was born into slavery and only escaped it when the Union forces invaded and captured New Orleans.”
That he was among the first black soldiers to enlist is not in dispute.
“The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was one of the first all-black regiments to fight in the Union Army during the American Civil War,” Mr. Daley reported. “Its members were comprised of a minority of free men of color from New Orleans, but most were African-American former slaves who escaped to join the Union cause and gain freedom.”
Mr. Coogan’s research into the Sandwich archives shows that Mr. Wilson served from 1864 to 1865.
“During those years he was paid between $6 and $9 a month. The 73rd operated under the Department of the Gulf and saw action from Florida west into Alabama, finishing the war as occupation troops in Louisiana. Wilson was mustered out at New Orleans in September of 1865 with $22 as a final payout for his service,” Mr. Coogan said.
Why he came to Sandwich, and exactly when, are unknown.
It is known from marriage records that Mr. Wilson married Ms. Philips in 1874. It is believed that Ms. Philips came from Nova Scotia, and was possibly a part of the Wampanoag Tribe. Her occupation is listed as “keeping house,” according to the 1880 census.
The couple worked the farm until Mr. Wilson died of “consumption” on May 3, 1886, probably at age 37. His wife died in 1891.
The Sandwich pauper records show that the town paid $2.50 to F.A. Fisher for digging a grave for Mr. Wilson. Another $5 receipt shows that he was cared for at the Alms House, or poorhouse. He was issued a standard Civil War headstone by the US government listing his service in the 73rd Regiment.
That stone is now weather-worn and barely legible.
Mr. Coogan believes the town’s only known black Civil War soldier should have a grave that better reflects his dignity.
“I’d like to do to get this man some recognition and maybe a better sign to mark his grave site,” Mr. Coogan told the community preservation committee members. “He deserves more than a second-rate grave.”
The preservation committee members seemed receptive to the idea, but asked Mr. Coogan to put together a specific request and to return with it to a future meeting.
Mr. Coogan agreed to return.
The standard Civil War marker for Joe Wilson was erected on April 21, 1888, with a stone supplied by Sheldon & Sons of West Rutland, Vermont, Mr. Coogan wrote.
“I’ve often thought that we should do more for this forgotten man,” he added. “At the very least, his grave site could use a better sign.”