There are a number of tombstones in the Feeler Family Cemetery in the Village of Cleveland in Oswego County, but two stand out.
Unlike the other twelve grave markers, these two are inscribed with the names of the deceased. Both of the men whose graves are marked were African Americans, and both served in the Army during the Civil War.
Henry H. Feeler
Henry may have been a son of Peter P. Feeler, a local farmer. Peter had been a slave, and was an early settler of Cleveland, as mentioned in a notice of his death in the Oswego Daily Palladium on September 19, 1874.
Henry’s tombstone indicates that he was a Civil War veteran, and served in a colored regiment from Connecticut, specifically, the 29th. The stone gives the Company he served in, which has been transcribed as Company J, but either it has been transcribed incorrectly, or a mistake was made when it was carved. This regiment had no Company J, as indicated in The Catalogue of Connecticut Volunteer Organizations (Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery) in the Service of the United States, 1861-1865, as well as in official records.
The 29th had a Company I, however, and the Catalogue lists a Robert H. Feeler as one of its members. Evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the Army’s Robert H. Feeler and the cemetery’s Henry H. Feeler are one and the same. Paperwork related to Robert H. Feeler’s enlistment in the 29th gives his birthplace as Kinderhook, New York, a town in Columbia County. The 1860 Census listing for Stuyvesant in Columbia County includes a Henry Feeler, a 33-year-old black man employed as a boatman. (These towns are near the boundary between New York and Connecticut.)
An 1853 Oswego County land deed, prepared when Peter P. Feeler purchased land in Cleveland, states that he was from Stuyvesant, so apparently he’d come to Cleveland from Columbia County. This evidence also makes it very plausible that Peter was the father of Henry/Robert. Adding to this evidence is the 1855 New York State Census for Constantia – the town that Cleveland is part of – that includes a Peter Feeler, born in Dutchess County, but whose wife Jane and son Leander were both born in Columbia County.
Notices in newspapers (in 1891 and 1900) concerning Robert H.’s military pension say he was a Cleveland resident, and these are further evidence that Robert H. Feeler was the same person as Henry H. Feeler.
Records held by the National Archives and Records Administration show that Feeler enlisted at New Haven, Connecticut, on January 5, 1864. His age is given as 36. Enlistment paperwork identifies him as “Robert H. Feeler, of Durham,” (coincidentally, the town in Middlesex County, Connecticut, where the writer of this article grew up). He was a farmer, 5-feet, 3-and-3/4 inches tall, and, as mentioned, born in Kinderhook, New York.
During 1864, Feeler was with his company, which was stationed first in South Carolina, then in Virginia. From December 1864 to January 1865 he was absent, on detached duty with an ambulance corps. He rejoined his unit the following March, at which time his company was encamped at Chapin Farm in Virginia. By April, Company I had joined the Army of the Potomac near Petersburg, where (according to War Department records) “it shared in the most memorable campaign which resulted in the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Gen’l Lee.”
Feeler became ill in June 1865, and, from then through September, his status was given as “sick at New Orleans, La.” The 29th had been sent to Texas, and Feeler perhaps became ill on the trip south and never reached Texas. He was discharged from the army on October 23, 1865.
On returning north, he joined his family in Cleveland, working as a farmer. The 1890 special census of veterans, includes Robert H. Feeler, of Cleveland, whose disability is “left eyesight impaired.” His passing was noted in the Rome Daily Sentinel, on December 24, 1903. One of the items under the headline “Cleveland Deaths,” said: “Henry Feeler, an old colored resident living north of this village, died on Monday.” No mention was made of his military service.
The Feeler Family Cemetery is located on what was the Feeler farm. A 1903 notice of the death of Elizabeth Wilson, identified as a sister of Henry Feeler,. said she was to be buried on the Feeler farm. The 1855 State Census lists Elizabeth as the wife of Edward Wilson, and shows her county of birth to be Columbia. It seems likely that Edward married Henry’s sister.
Edward Wilson’s headstone merely says “Co. B 5th. Mass. Colored Vols,” without indicating the type of regiment (infantry, cavalry, etc.). But the nature of his service is readily determined by consulting records of Civil War units from Massachusetts. Wilson is listed (as Edward B. Wilson) in Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, prepared by the Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office, and he is in the National Park Service’s database, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. Both show he was in Company B of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry.
Military records for Wilson are available from the Internet Archive (archive.org), as a digitized version of a National Archives microfilm publication called “Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: 1st through 5th United States Colored Cavalry, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored), 6th United States Colored Cavalry.”
These records give his birthplace as Williamstown, New York – which is not far from Cleveland – and his occupation as “shoemaker,” which matches the occupation given for him in the 1850 and 1860 Federal Census schedules for Constantia/Cleveland, as well as in the 1855 New York State Census. It seems clear that this Edward B. Wilson is the one whose tombstone still stands in Cleveland.
Wilson enlisted for a term of three years on December 31, 1863, at Raynham, Massachusetts. The records give his height as 5-foot, 3-inches, and his age as 37, which would make his year of birth a few years earlier than what the various census listings indicate. The Massachusetts 5th Colored Cavalry were housed at Camp Meigs, in Readville, Massachusetts (as were other black units, such as the famous Massachusetts 54th Infantry).
Wilson’s career as a soldier had an auspicious start: on January 8, 1864 he was appointed a sergeant. He was “mustered in” for Federal service on January 29. For the first few months, it can be presumed that he trained along with other members of his regiment. But things began to go downhill for him. In March and April, Sergeant Wilson was “sick in hospital.”
At the beginning of May, when the rest of the regiment shipped south, to serve at various places in Maryland and Northern Virginia, Wilson developed pneumonia. In May and June, he was sick at Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor. His rank was reduced to Private. On July 18, he was discharged due to disability by order of Major General John A. Dix (who would later become governor of New York). His discharge states that he was “incapable of performing the duties of a soldier,” due to his having become sick “while in the line of his duty at Camp Meigs.” His disability was “total,” and he was even “unfit for the V.R.C.” The Veterans Reserve Corps (V.R.C.) was an organization in which injured soldiers could continue to serve, carrying out light duties.
Wilson’s service was short, and he never experienced combat with his regiment, who, despite being cavalrymen, were dismounted and served as infantrymen during the war. They were mostly assigned picket or guard duty, but did participate in some battles at Petersburg, Virginia.
Wilson returned to Oswego County after being discharged. He continued making shoes, since the 1865 State Census for Constantia lists him (following the listing of the Peter Feeler family) as a 36-year-old shoemaker. He died, according to the inscription on his gravestone, on March 11, 1869.
Though Feeler’s war service amounted to more than that of Wilson, both men were impacted by poor health while in the Army. To paraphrase John Milton: they also serve, who only become ill.
Illustrations: Feeler’s enlistment papers (National Archives); and Wilson’s discharge certificate (Internet Archive).
Photos of the tombstones here: