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Zion Union Cemetery

Where "Glory" rests in Mercersburg

Where "Glory" rests in Mercersburg

September 28, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - At the end of a narrow lane off Bennett Avenue in Mercersburg is a small plot of land that's the repository of a large slice of Civil War and local African-American history.

The three acres of Zion Union Cemetery contain the gravesites of 38 Civil War veterans, including 13 members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit celebrated in the 1989 film, "Glory."

Despite its historical significance, the cemetery has remained largely unknown to Franklin County residents outside Mercersburg's small African-American community. As maintenance of the grounds deteriorated over the years, it appeared as if memory of the Mercersburg veterans' achievements, like some of the names on the tombstones, would fade away.

Chris Frisby, a Mercersburg native who has ancestors buried in Zion Union, knew of the site's importance. And he's a serious student of history, with two degrees in that subject (bachelor of arts from Kenyon College and master of arts from Shippensburg University). Recently, he decided that perhaps the cemetery could be restored and better maintained if other people knew about it, too.

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"It (Zion Union) is our claim to fame," he said. "It's believed that more 54th veterans are buried here than in any other private cemetery."

But before discussing current efforts to restore Zion Union, some background might be in order.

Mercersburg's African-American community is an old one. People of color can be found in early census records dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, Chris said.

Perhaps swollen by migration and ex-slaves who'd reached the area via the Underground Railroad, the African-American population may have been as much as 10 percent of Mercersburg's total prior to the Civil War. So when Martin Delany passed through the area to recruit men for the United States Colored Troops during the war, he found plenty of takers in the area.

Delany, who lived in Chambersburg for much of his childhood, was an abolitionist, writer, teacher and early black nationalist. He later became the first African-American field officer in the United States Army.

A total of 88 men from Mercersburg African-American families joined the Union Army - an incredible turnout for a community of a few hundred people. Many of the recruits served in either the 54th Massachusetts, commanded by Robert Gould Shaw of Boston, or its sister regiment, the 55th. The Christy family alone sent four brothers, three of whom served in the 54th.

"Why and how so many joined is hard to know today," Chris said. Certainly idealism may have driven many of the men, especially former slaves, to fight to preserve their freedom and extend it to others.

Chris has his own connection to the 54th. His great-great-great- grandfather, Hezekiah Watson, was a 54th soldier and is buried in Zion Union. His great-grandmother was a Cuff, and another ancestor, Thomas Cuff, served in the 54th and is also buried in the local cemetery.

The 54th Regiment's courageous assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina has been well documented in "Glory" and other sources. The unit sustained 256 casualties in the assault, about 40 percent of its total.

Zion Union Cemetery's history began on April 12, 1876, when a group of African-American residents purchased about three acres of land just south of Mercersburg. A petition for an article of incorporation for the Zion Union Cemetery Association was filed in county court that November. Among the 29 persons witnessing the petition were Alexander Watson (the community's pastor), two women and at least 14 Civil War veterans.

Quoted in a 2006 article in the Mercersburg Academy alumni magazine, Chris (a 1991 academy graduate), said he didn't remember visiting the cemetery before he was 12 or 13.

".... My first memory of Zion Union is of a funeral of a great-great aunt. I remember the music vividly," he said. "The spirituals, sung exclusively by women, totally moved me. I didn't realize the cemetery had a proper name until just a few years ago. It was just called 'the black cemetery.' It all seemed so very informal and kind of off the radar compared to Fairview, the white cemetery, which is a prominent feature as you enter town."

Inspired by an academy teacher, Gene Sancho, Chris went on to major in history at Kenyon. Following graduation he worked out of the Mercersburg area for a time, including several years in Chicago. When he returned to the area in the fall of 2005, he noticed that "not a lot had been done for years" at Zion Union. Membership in the cemetery association had been falling off, and little maintenance work was being done beyond mowing. Some of the gravestones had fallen.

"When I came back from Chicago, I asked some questions. We reformed the group (cemetery association) and elected some officers (including Frisby as president)," Chris said.

The first order of business was to raise funds for restoration and maintenance of the cemetery.

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