Remaining Honor of the United States Colored Troops

Ray Brown (center) lifts a cover off of Cpl. Thomas Walker's grave at the October ceremony. Members of the reenactment group Buffalo Soldiers of the American West helped lead much of the ceremony.
Ray Brown (center) lifts a cover off of Cpl. Thomas Walker’s grave at the October ceremony. Members of the reenactment group Buffalo Soldiers of the American West helped lead much of the ceremony.

Four men in unmarked graves in Pueblo had been dead for years, generations even, before someone realized who they were. Their lives, forgotten through the decades, existed only in records scattered through libraries and old directories, waiting for someone, someday to put them together.

It wasn’t until March 2014 that someone did.

Today, months after a much-publicized ceremony at Roselawn Cemetery, the four men have markers. But there’s still a lot of work to do to uncover the mystery behind their lives.

“The stories as to where they came from or how they got here–that’s still kind of a mystery that will continue to unfold,” said Ray Brown, president of the board of directors and co-commissioner of the Pueblo Martin Luther King, Jr. Cultural Center and Museum.

For the past year-and-a-half, Brown has been doing research in libraries, databases and even old phone directories to discover who, exactly, these men were and how they ended up in Pueblo. He has also discovered others like these men, buried sometimes anonymously, in various places throughout Southern Colorado.

Brown’s journey into what turned out to be a series of discoveries started when Lucille Corsentino, founder of the Concerned Citizens of Roselawn Cemetery, told him of four unmarked graves at the cemetery that might have belonged to Buffalo Soldiers.

Associated with the reenactment group Buffalo Soldiers of the American West, Brown thought the prospect was interesting. Buffalo Soldiers were a unit of African-American soldiers originally designated by the U.S. at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1866, and it would have been a rare find.

But Brown and a group of fellow volunteers ultimately found that the four graves belonged to four Civil War soldiers who died in Pueblo: Pvt. George Washington, who died in 1899; Pvt. James Williams, who died in 1921; Cpl. Thomas Walker, who died in 1900; and 1st Lt. Louis Young, who died in 1901.

When he was walking around the cemetery after Corsentino called him, Brown started seeing an unfamiliar designation on some of the surrounding headstones.

“So, there were four guys they identified that didn’t have markers and as we walked through it, we started seeing this new designation and this designation was USCT or USCI, and I said, ‘What the heck is that?’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t match a Buffalo soldier. Something’s weird,’ but I didn’t say anything then.”

Brown removes the cover over Pvt. James Williams' grave. The USCT designations on the graves, which stand for U.S. Colored Troop, indicate that the men fought in the Civil War.
Brown removes the cover over Pvt. James Williams’ grave. The USCT designations on the graves, which stand for U.S. Colored Troop, indicate that the men fought in the Civil War.

Ray Brown (center) lifts a cover off of Cpl. Thomas Walker’s grave at the October ceremony. Members of the reenactment group Buffalo Soldiers of the American West helped lead much of the ceremony.
Ray Brown (center) lifts a cover off of Cpl. Thomas Walker’s grave at the October ceremony. Members of the reenactment group Buffalo Soldiers of the American West helped lead much of the ceremony.
What he found, after conducting some research was that the designations stood for “United States Colored Troop” and “United States Colored Infantry,” labels that could have only been synonymous with soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

When the Civil War began, the Army needed a way to identify in documents which soldiers were African-American.

“What they originally came up with was the USCT and that just stood for U.S. Colored Troop,” Brown said.

But eventually, as many as 163 African-American regiments were enlisted in the Army.

“When they started getting so many of them, they figured they better start designating them more closely,” he said. “So, they changed their designations and made them more specific.”

Other designations, such as “U.S. Colored Light Artillery” and “U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery” were used as the number of black soldiers increased. In some rare cases, Brown said, African-Americans served in white units as cooks and some African-Americans were even officers, but he didn’t come across any of those cases in Pueblo.

Since the surrounding headstones and records of the four men Brown would find later included the USCT and USCI designations, the group concluded that these men fought in the Civil War.

Brown said three of the men—Washington, Williams and Walker—were likely born into slavery, and that Young was a white officer. All of them were Union soldiers.

“We assumed they were born into slavery. Nothing I’ve found so far indicates that any of them were freed men. Some of them may have been,” Brown said. “They didn’t keep very good records of the African-Americans during slavery times, so it’s hard to locate them.”

Brown placed a lot of his effort on learning about Young. As a white officer in command of an all-African-American unit, Young was relatively rare.

“Not a lot of them were willing, but over 2,000 actually participated as officers for these ‘colored’ units,” Brown said. “And he just happens to be one of those officers.”

But perhaps the strangest thing about Young was that he didn’t have a marker.

“That struck me as really odd,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘My God, he’s a first lieutenant in the United States Army. Why wouldn’t they have placed the marker for him? Wasn’t there somebody here that cared about him?’ It didn’t seem like there was.”

Brown said that much later in the process of discovering who these men were, the cemetery found that one of the men, Walker, actually did have a headstone, but it had been knocked over years ago. When they found the marker, it was face-forward in the ground, making its engraving illegible.

But for the rest of the men, the group assumed their lives were solitary. No one, until now, knew the identities of the men buried in the unmarked graves.

Once the group knew the identities of the four men, who after years of anonymity were finally being discovered, they decided to host a ceremony to honor them.

“Everything kind of started happening,” Brown said. “When I discovered who these guys were, and the fact that they didn’t have markers, the cemetery wanted to get markers and I said, ‘Well, I’ll apply for them,’ so I did.”

Brown originally sent out an application to the Department of Veteran Affairs for official military headstones. He worked with Roselawn to verify the paperwork and the identities of the men, but the VA told Brown that since he isn’t related to any of the soldiers, they couldn’t, by law, provide him with official markers.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. This guy has been dead for over a hundred years. No, I’m not his relative, but we have a situation here where we’d like to put markers on their graves,’ and they said, ‘Well, until the law changes, we can’t issue you markers.’”

But after a series of meetings, Roselawn Cemetery decided to donate markers similar to the ones that would have been provided by the VA.

“They had markers that were like the markers that the government would have issued for these guys,” Brown said. “The cemetery agreed that we’ll not only do that, but we’ll place them for free, which is very, very cool.”

Roselawn also did the engraving and headstone stabilization work for free, he said.

The ceremony, which took place at the cemetery in October, featured bagpipe players, the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West, ministers, singers, a horse — and a slew of media attention.

Shortly after the ceremony, Colorado Public Radio interviewed Paul Finkelman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the Civil War, about the lives of the men and why they would have traveled to Pueblo after the war was over.

Finkelman’s finding, which challenged information gathered by the group, was that the white officer, Young, could have emigrated from Europe and joined the military in Missouri.

“Well, that’s a possibility,” Brown said. “I certainly didn’t write the fact that he was born in Pittsburgh, Mississippi. That was information that was given to us, not something I generated on my own, so I think he was wrong. And I’ve done a lot more tracking around, trying to find this guy and there’s just so many of these people that it’s just hard to figure it out.”

In his research, Brown found other men named Louis Young, but in all cases, the information didn’t quite match up.

“There was a Louis Young that was in the fourth Mississippi infantry, which, you know, you look at it and you say, ‘it’s possible,’ but it’s got Vicksburg information on it. But he wouldn’t have been a Confederate and switch sides in the middle of the war,” he said. “At least I don’t think he did.”

Brown has also found that after more than a century, some information is too difficult to verify.

“So, it makes you wonder, well maybe that’s not the right guy. And you just keep going through it. It’s hard to figure out sometimes exactly where these guys were.”

But, regardless of the dispute behind Young’s history, a conclusion both Brown and Finkelman came to was that the men probably went to Pueblo for a better life.

“Of course, there wasn’t as much as an overt racism in Colorado so, that was a good landing place for people. The steel mill was also a great place for people to land if they had any of that steelmaking background,” Brown said. “If commerce moves out that way, you move with it.”

Brown also came across other African-American soldiers who were buried in Pueblo. When he started his research at the library, he was referred to a book titled “Civil War Veterans Buried in Pueblo County.” The book lists basic details about the military information, addresses and causes of death of every Civil War soldier buried in Pueblo.

“I went page by page of every veteran in here and one of the things I was looking for is their unit, who they were with,” he said. “In the Civil War it was very easy, because they called them ‘Colored Infantry.’”

Brown said that, so far, he’s come across 22 black Civil War soldiers buried in Pueblo.

“What I found was that Roselawn wasn’t the only place that had Civil War veterans. So, we have veterans buried in Mountain View and the Pioneer Cemetery as well.”

“And in my research, I went as far as World War I,” he said. “I did that because I had the books, and I thought it would be interesting to kind of see how we did over time, and so I found a couple of guys.”

Brown also came across books about all other veterans who are buried in Pueblo and has also been using and Fold3, a collection of military records.

“I spent a lot of time here in the library. I spent a lot of time at the Roselawn cemetery. I spend time on trying to find these guys and I went into Fold3 to find information about them as well. I’ve gone up to the Denver libraries trying to locate when these guys possibly came to Colorado, why they came,” he said. “It’s not easy to find.”

Since starting his research, Brown has come across several other soldiers, including one Hispanic man with an unmarked grave in Trinidad, and one Buffalo Soldier who lived, for a time, at the Lincoln House in Pueblo, which is now the museum Brown works at.

Brown also said he might have found a family member of one of the four Civil War soldiers the group honored in October.

For now, Brown said he’s not sure what he wants to do with all of the information he’s gathered, but he still has plans to keep learning about men who haven’t been thought of for over a century.

“Some people have suggested that I need to write a book or something and put it in a book, but I don’t know. We’ll see. What I’ve been doing is just collecting the information and sharing the information as much as I can,” he said.

Brown is set to give a presentation about his findings Feb. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rawlings Library in Pueblo. It will be open to the public.

“I’ve had some reasonable successes in some areas but it still is something you continue working on over time,” he said. “But there are a lot of guys, actually, that are here in Pueblo and it’s quite amazing.”

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