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A Cemetery in Hannibal

hannibal civil war cemeteryWhen first I heard that Hannibal’s Old Baptist Cemetery has graves of two veterans of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, I thought to myself, here are men who transplanted themselves to Missouri after the Civil War.  Peel back the pages of history, though, and what is revealed is a remarkable story.

The 55th regiment was the second African-American fighting unit enrolled in Massachusetts.  Its famous cousin, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, fought at Fort Wagner in ’63.  It was the 54th that made movie stars of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman (the 1989 film Glory).  Soon after the effective date of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Governor of Massachusetts sought and received the permission of the War Department to enroll African-American troops; soon after that, the Governor realized that there were not enough young men of African descent in Massachusetts to fill a regiment.  Some of the men who were Governor Andrews’ advisors were the same men who armed Kansas immigrants in the 1850s. George L. Stearns was one of them.  Stearns organized a national recruiting effort, and he went to places where populations of African-Americans of military age were abundant.  So, he opened a recruiting office in St. Louis, and agents of the Massachusetts Governor went into Missouri counties such as Marion, Pike and Ralls.

Stearns’ recruiting mission was so successful that Massachusetts formed a second regiment with the excess recruits, the 55th.  While some of the Missouri men who volunteered entered the ranks of the famous 54th, dozens of them found their way into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  William Morrison and Richard Miller were two of these men.  It is no accident that they are buried in Hannibal. They returned home, after their unit distinguished itself in the sea islands of the South Carolina shore, and lived out their lives in Missouri.  Corporal Morrison and Private Miller were there, we should presume, when the 55th regiment was among the first Union troops that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, after the fall of the city that was the cradle of Confederate hopes. The occupation of Charleston by African-American troops, on February 21, 1865, was hugely symbolic, as the men of Boston no doubt intended it to be.

Photos by Kelly Suellentrop Ballwin, MO

Photos by Kelly Suellentrop
Ballwin, MO

The Old Baptist Cemetery in Hannibal holds a place in literary history: Most people who speculate on the subject will tell you that it is the “graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind” where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn witnessed the murder of Doc Robinson.  But, almost every square foot of this great river town that Mark Twain immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a place in literary history.  Old Baptist Cemetery holds a treasure of another kind, stone memories of common men, banded together, who changed history.

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