Army veteran hunts for identity of 31 black Civil War troops buried in Tallahassee

Source: Tallahassee Democrat
For some, military service doesn’t end on the battlefield.

Such is the case for Army Sgt. Maj. Jarvis Rosier, who is on a 10-year quest to match black Civil War veterans to 31 unmarked graves.

Rosier is a retired Army veteran who spent 34 years in the military. His service included a combat tour in Afghanistan. He received awards, medals and citations during his military career, including the Army Bronze Star for his leadership and gallantry in combat. The Tallahassee native grew up in a military family; eight of his brothers are also veterans.

In 2010, Rosier founded the 2nd Infantry Regiment United States Colored Troop Living History Association, a volunteer organization focused on educating the public about fallen black soldiers.

Nearly a decade ago, at a John G. Riley Center commemoration for veterans, Rosier stumbled across 31 Civil War-era gravestones in the small Union section of the Old City Cemetery. The side-by-side grave markers, some crooked, some upright, were marked only with the words “U.S. Soldier.”

Rosier began his quest to discover who all those unidentified black Union soldiers were in life.

“We try to not only put a face on the battlefield, but we try to tell the history of those soldiers,” said Rosier, who began his work November 2010. “A lot of what we found (needed) to be revised. That’s what triggered and pricked me to research more and find the truth. It was just a passion to get the true story told.”

The 61-year-old wants to do more than identify the soldiers, he wants to honor them with official headstones.

Julianne Hare, unit historian for the association, said they used historical indicators to determine time period and race of the unidentified soldiers. She viewed digitized military archives on the National Administration for Records website that had original enlistment cards, which gave physical descriptions, such as “brown skin, brown eyes.”

“I depend only on primary source information,” Hare said. “I do use other information as clues. You can take those clues and make some broad assumptions, and zero in on those assumptions to find the primary source proof to make sure your assumption is true.”

Hare and Rosier can access medical records and find out when a person was buried. Many soldiers have plot numbers, and researchers can cross reference, but many of the 31 soldiers in the Old City Cemetery do not have numbers. Rosier and Hare must draw conclusions from potential dates of death.

“A lot of times you get the revised history of someone’s vision of what happened,” Rosier said. “We have to be careful with the research we do. It takes several times, looking it over and different sources to come to a conclusion.”

Rosier said tracing names to graves is like a maze. One major challenge is distance. The soldiers could have been natives of any southern state.

So far, the unit has matched 10 soldiers, and has provided the necessary documentation to the Veterans Administration: proof of burial and proof of a veteran’s service. Once the request is approved it takes three to four months to process a headstone request.

One of the identified soldiers, Sgt. William Allison of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was enlisted at 25 as a substitute for a white man. Frequently during the Civil War, if a wealthy person was drafted, they could pay a fee to the government to have another soldier represent them in combat.

Allison traveled to Tallahassee by train Jan. 27, 1866, records showed, and suffered a massive heart attack and died after never making it to the hospital.

“This man went through so much. (He) left his home, took the money to benefit his family, survived Key West, went out to sea and Chattahoochee, all to drop dead at the end of the war,” Hare said.

Rosier and Hare have a muster of more than 1,300 names of members who were part of the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment of USCT. They are using the muster as a guide to track down the 31 in the cemetery.

Many of them likely died at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Rosier said, which was fought March 6, 1865, in what is now Woodville.

“They were just kind of forced into battle to be infantry men, so they weren’t prepared for the battlefield,” Rosier said.

The two infantries arrived on ships that landed at St. Marks, they marched north, carrying canons through the swamps. Skirmishes along the way gave up their location

“By the time they got there, the Confederate forces already had soldiers from all over the area, some as far as South Carolina, to come up and put up barriers,” Rosier said. “When the soldiers from the 2nd and 99th got there, they were up against an insurmountable force.”

The Union soldiers were unable to seize Tallahassee and it became the only capital east of the Mississippi River to not be captured, Rosier said. The Union Army lost 21 soldiers to the Confederate’s three.

Three weeks later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

Rosier said the research is personal to him. It motivates his search to learn the truth about the long lost men whose final resting place in Tallahassee is far from their original homes and families.

“I tell people every time I turn over a stone I see 10 pebbles,” he said. “I developed a passion after I saw that these soldiers gave so much, but they were forgotten, and a lot of the history we present right now is not in the history books, if it is, it’s glossed over. So, we are endeavoring to tell that story.”

T’Nerra Butler is a Tallahassee Democrat staff writer. Email her tbutler@tallahassee.com

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