“Thursday was a gala day for the colored people of [Norwich] and surrounding towns,” the Chenango Semi-Weekly Telegram reported on September 27, 1879. “The occasion being the reunion of the colored soldiers of the late war, under the auspices of the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company of this village.”
The African American fire company had been organized earlier that year and elected Civil War veteran Hannibal C. Molson its Foreman. The day’s program called for a dinner, a parade, and speeches in recognition of their honoree’s service followed in the evening by a meal at the Spaulding House, musical selections, and a ball at Concert Hall.
The area’s newspapers do not indicate how many black veterans lived in Norwich, or provide
an estimate on the reunion’s attendance, but the event drew ex-soldiers from around central New York. As delegations from Syracuse, Utica, Binghamton, and other places arrived by train, they were escorted by the Norwich Cornet Band, and Jones’ fire company to Maydole Park (also called Maydole Grove) to renew friendships, share war stories, introduce their wives, and enjoy a meal “served most bountifully,” according to one report. At 3 pm the parade though the village began under the direction of marshals William G. Wood of Delhi, and Professor William Allen of Ithaca.
Drum Major Henry Jackson of Syracuse and the Cornet Band led the parade. The Sherburne Home News reported that “a conspicuous” feature of the parade was the presence of “the Palmer Guards, a colored military organization” also from Syracuse. In carriages sat honored guests including Professor [G .R. B.] Smith of Utica, Samuel P. Jourdan and Wm. Anderson of Syracuse,
Editor [Thomas] Randall of the Sherburne News, Martin Bell of Binghamton, and others. The other Utica Daily Observer described the parade’s spectators, saying that the sidewalks “were lined with colored fellow-citizens of both sexes.”
Upon the parade’s conclusion, the marchers returned to Maydole Park for prayer by Rev. Lorenzo F. Rogers of Norwich, and an address by the Orator of the Day, and civil rights activist, Prof. Smith. He addressed the audience on the hardships faced by the veterans, and their enduring valor, as well as the need to continue the progress made in racial equality. The Home News reviewed Smith’s reference to a great irony that many blacks who wanted to enlist for the Union in 1861 – “their services were rejected at the commencement of the contest, but cheerfully welcomed before its close” – referring to the fact that African Americans could not enlist until 1863. The Telegraph noted that among those present were members of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. Finally, he appealed to the veterans “as they had shown great bravery and capabilities on the battlefield, to now show that they were capable of taking a higher stand in civil life.”
Following the evening meal, the veterans and guests enjoyed a grand ball. The Telegraph observed that the Hall “was filled to the utmost capacity with dancers and spectators [and] dancing was kept up until near daylight.”
During the Civil War, thousands of black men fought for the North, and the reunion in Norwich in 1879 reminds us all of their service.
Photo: Hannibal C. Molson, one of many African Americans who were enlisted at the beginning of the war.