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Port Byron Wreaths Across America 2012

Port Byron Wreaths Across America 2012

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Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: DRoe on Dec 15, 2012
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Wreaths Across America Ceremony

December 14, 2012 – Port Byron Central School District I’m delighted to be here today. Dr. Townsend, our panel of distinguished guests, and our school district are to be commended for bringing the Wreaths Across America program to Port Byron. As you know, this is the 150th anniversary of Americas War between brothers. Many accomplished scholars have written about the Civil War, yet after a century and a half, we have yet to fully realize “our” story in this war. Port Byron provided over 200 soldiers to defend the Union, yet little has been recorded to tell us the unique legacy of each soldier. Today I’d like to briefly focus on our African American soldiers. If we were to close our eyes and imagine ourselves transported back in time to the 1860’s, we would arrive to a thriving Erie Canal village having twice our current population. Those not traveling by the Erie would arrive by road. Keep in mind there would be no automobile, just dirt roads for the faithful horse and buggy. Upon arrival, Richard Dyer’s hotel would stand ready to accommodate the weariest of travelers. If you dined here, you would likely meet a hotel staff member by the name of Mr. John Stewart, an African American. John may have been a freedom seeker, a child slave from Virginia who escaped to the North for his freedom. If his slave status can be proven to research standards, we must comprehend that his employer Richard Dyer would have been in violation of the Fugitive Slave Law for harboring an escaped slave. Port Byron was one of the “hot spots” in Cayuga County where African Americans could seek employment as part of the general community. What is remarkable about Mr. Stewart is that he would become a Union soldier, enlisting into the US Colored Troops from Montezuma, signing his enlistment papers by X mark. He was one of eight African American soldiers connected to the Port Byron community that served in the Civil War. Out of this group, the other soldiers appear to have been free, meaning their mother was free. Their names are James Butler, John Wesley Freeman, brothers Sylvester & Thomas McChesney, Edward Reese, James St. Clair, and Phillip Ten Eycke. None of these men were born here but many would consider Port Byron their forever home. We also supplied three officers to the colored troops being Lieut. Nathan Munger, Corp. Edwin Ward and Lieut. Col. Benjamin Webb Thompson who was promoted to Major and later served as Provost Marshall General for the District of Hilton Head, South Carolina.

While Port Byron’s African American population was small, they played a significant role in our history. In 1866, an organization was founded at Decater, Illinois called the Grand Army of the Republic, in short called the GAR. This fraternal organization of veterans quickly gained momentum, having over 400,000 members at its peak. Their accomplishments include the passage of the pension bill to secure pensions for the surviving soldiers and the GAR also established Memorial Day as a National Holiday. Port Byron joined the GAR on 7/20/1880 with the founding of our Lockwood Post #175. The post was named after our fallen native son Capt. John William Lockwood of the 111th Infantry. The Post was active with grave markings, dedications and National Encampments. They also acted as Overseer of the Poor, relieving the Town of that responsibility. Their greatest achievement, with the generosity of this community, would be the installation of the soldier’s monument at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The monument is surrounded by graves of civil war soldiers and includes the eternal resting place of John Thomas an African American soldier who is buried beside his fellow comrades without prejudice. Recently many townships are discovering that their GAR Posts also admitted African American soldiers as members. Our Lockwood Post was indeed integrated but took equality one-step further by electing African American’s as officers. Sylvester McChesney of the 20th USCT was elected and served for many years as the Post’s Officer of the Guard. Although a low ranking officer, having any African American holding such a position is very rare. In closing, it has been said that all soldiers, past and present, share a common bond. That bond is love of Country. Our Civil War soldiers and this community have added to that legacy, leaving one additional enduring quality, the gift of acceptance and tolerance of others. It is our ability to rediscover ourselves from programs like Wreaths Across America that enables us to remain prideful of Port Byron’s historic past, while keeping our eyes to the future. Thank you Dawn Roe - Port Byron Historian

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