Memorial Day Greetings; Remembering Joseph Clovese, of the USCT and the GAR

Clovese Photo
Joseph Clovese, late of the United States Colored Troops (USCT)
This is an unattributed photograph that purportedly shows Civil War veteran Joseph Clovese, who passed away at the age of 107 in 1951.

For this 2013 Memorial Day, I want to give thanks and honor to the men and women who fought, died, and otherwise served in defense of our freedom and liberty. And I especially want to ackowledge the contributions of the African American soldiers and sailors who served in the armed forces during the American Civil War.

I recently learned of the story of Joseph Clovese, which I am happy to share. Clovese may well have been the last surviving African American veteran of the Civil War. Reportedly, he passed away in July 1951 at the tender age of 107.

Michigan’s Messenger – The Newsletter of The Department of Michigan Sons Of Union Veterans Of The Civil War tells of Clovese’s early life and service:

He was born… on a plantation on January 30, 1844 in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Though born a slave, he received a good education as a favorite house boy of his master. At age 17 he ran away to join nearby Union soldiers.

He became a drummer boy during the siege of Vicksburg and later was enrolled in a regiment of “colored troops”.

Following the war he worked on Mississippi river steamboats. He later worked on the crew stringing the first telegraph wires between New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Clovese was enlisted in the 63rd Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry, where his name is listed as Joseph Clovrse. For service information about the 63rd Regiment, look here.

At the age of 104, Clovese moved from Louisiana to Pontiac, Michigan to be with family. As further related by the Michigan’s Messenger,

Once “Uncle Joe’s” presence was known, the community of Pontiac embraced him. Large gatherings were organized for his 105th, 106th and 107th birthdays.

Joseph Clovese died at Dearborn Veterans hospital on July 13, 1951. More than 300 people were packed into the small Newman A.M.E. Church for the service. Hundreds more gathered at the grave site in Perry Mount Park cemetery. Oakland County Council of Veterans members served as pall bearers. A firing squad from Selfridge Air Force Base fired the final salute and taps was sounded over the cemetery.

Thus, Clovese received a tribute befitting the Great Generation of black soldiers in the United States armed forces.

I also want to give honor to my late uncle, Edward Cannon. He served in a segregated (African American) tank unit (761st Tank Battalion) under the command of General Patton. The unit was known as “the Black Panthers” based on their insignia. Rest in peace.

Negro G. A. R. Veterans Parading, New York City, May 30, 1912


Negro G.A.R. veterans parading, New York City, May 30, 1912
Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-132913; see more information about the photo here.

This is a photograph of black Civil War veterans, and family and friends, marching in a Grand Army of the Republic parade in New York in the early twentieth century. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization of United States (Union) veterans of the Civil War, including men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service. Wikipedia discusses the GAR:

After the end of American Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty,” in Decatur, Illinois, by Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The GAR promoted voting rights for black veterans, as many veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans’ organizations in preference for racially inclusive groups. But when the Republican Party’s commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR’s mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many divisions ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts. The national organization, however, failed to press the case for pensions for black soldiers.

I recently purchased The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, by Barbara Gannon. Like so many books I don’t have time to read, this might sit on my shelf for a while. But it promises to offer some interesting insights into race relations and the GAR. This is from a description of the book:

In the years after the Civil War, black and white Union soldiers who survived the horrific struggle joined the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)–the Union army’s largest veterans’ organization. In this thoroughly researched and groundbreaking study, Barbara Gannon chronicles black and white veterans’ efforts to create and sustain the nation’s first interracial organization.

According to the conventional view, the freedoms and interests of African American veterans were not defended by white Union veterans after the war, despite the shared tradition of sacrifice among both black and white soldiers. In The Won Cause, however, Gannon challenges this scholarship, arguing that although black veterans still suffered under the contemporary racial mores, the GAR honored its black members in many instances and ascribed them a greater equality than previous studies have shown. Using evidence of integrated posts and veterans’ thoughts on their comradeship and the cause, Gannon reveals that white veterans embraced black veterans because their membership in the GAR demonstrated that their wartime suffering created a transcendent bond–comradeship–that overcame even the most pernicious social barrier–race-based separation.

By upholding a more inclusive memory of a war fought for liberty as well as union, the GAR’s “Won Cause” challenged the Lost Cause version of Civil War memory.