It takes a lot of gumption to admit you’re a Civil War Union sympathizer in the South, but that’s exactly what speaker Lee Hadden did this week.
The Roanoke author and historian talked about the lives of three largely unknown black Union soldiers buried in East Hill North Cemetery in Salem, and how Hadden’s chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will celebrate them this Saturday.
Two of the three were slaves who escaped to the North, he explained, with the third presumably a freedman from Pennsylvania. They gave up much in their lives at that time for “the fight for freedom” of their people. Colored Union troops were formed in 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
More than 80 people listened spellbound to Hadden’s talk in the Salem Museum on May 20. A number of them who have relatives – or might have – buried in the graveyard behind the museum got excited about researching and finding out more on their ancestors’ stories.
The youngest was Aleah Keaton of Salem, who might be related to Corp. William Keaton. “I’m not sure if we’re related, but I want to learn more,” the Western Carolina University rising senior said.
Hadden encouraged her, and gave her tips for starting her research upstairs in the museum’s library, and in the Virginia Room of the Roanoke Public Library.
He also encouraged members of the audience to do the same, as well as joining the Lawrence Chamberlin Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Civil War medals for proven Union soldiers are available from West Virginia, he explained, once relatives supply the information.
Corp. Keaton, Pvt. Larkin Burwell and Pvt. Ellis Kile all came back from the war to work and live in Salem.
Corp. Keaton was somewhat of an enigma. He was born in Philadelphia and therefore, probably free, Hadden said. “It’s unknown why he came to Salem, but he did work with Larkin in Texas and also fought in the Battle of the Crater.”
Keaton is the only one Hadden spoke about who does not have a marker over his grave. Instead, the speaker and members of the neighborhood’s East Hill North Ladies met earlier this week to dedicate a “memorial stone” placed near the three crosses on the hill behind the wall which lists the known people buried in East Hill North.
He worked as a janitor at a Salem school. “The boys in the high school thought so much of him and his stories of the Civil War that they published an epithet in the Roanoke paper,” Hadden said.
Pvt. Larkin Burwell is buried in East Hill, although it is only his wife Ann Nelson who had a marker placed when she died which has survived. Now Burwell’s grave is marked by a Veterans Affairs-supplied stone marker and small bronze-colored marker placed by the SUV. Saturday at 10 a.m., members will place an American flag there and by the graves of Kile and Keaton. The public is invited to the ceremony.
Burwell’s wife was relatively well-to-do, and when she died, she had an estate worth over $200, Hadden said. Over the years Ann’s marker was broken into three pieces, then repaired.
Pvt. Ellis Kile was from Salem, and insisted on enlisted for one year, Hadden pointed out. The usual enlistment was two years. His company K of the 45th United States Colored Troops was composed mostly of escaped slaves, the speaker said.
Kile, who listed himself as a farmer, has a headstone next to the last of his several wives, Vina Kile, “who was a good wife. She had a marker placed there for him.”
In encouraging audience members to research Union soldiers, Hadden concluded, “The history is there to be discovered. You need to figure it out. It needs to be written down. Write it, put it on Wikipedia.”
According to information supplied on the speaker, Lee Hadden has ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. He is a retired science research and map librarian from the US Army Corps of Engineers at Ft. Belvoir. Before that, he worked with the US Geological Survey, the Department of Defense (Philippines), the Department of the Army (South Korea), and the US Army Ballistic Research Laboratory (Maryland).