In the Milltown Rural Cemetery located in the Town of Southeast, Putnam County, NY, there is a small, well-weathered military headstone that offers a faint hint to a story of courage and glory.
There lies a hero from the Civil War, a Black veteran, who didn’t live long enough for post-war decoration or celebration, and one who has regularly been misreported in history books, until now.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Putnam County, New York, was home to approximately 183 Black residents, representing 1.1% of the population. Of those, about 43 were men between the ages of 18 and 45 who, following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 2nd, 1863, may have been inspired to join the Union to fight not only for unification, but for liberty throughout the nation. After this call to arms, Francis Oliver Myers, a 23-year-old Black man born in Patterson, NY, found his way to Massachusetts and joined the Union Army.
During this volatile period of national affairs, Putnam County was integrated but had only a small population of Black residents. Few Black families owned property and many individuals were employed as domestics or laborers. Local cemeteries were integrated, as well as Methodist and Baptist churches, and “free” Black families were recorded as early as the 1790 census, some as heads of household and some with Revolutionary War service.
The Myers family (locally spelled Myres, but also Meyers, Meyer, even Mayer) first appear as early property owners with a deed dating back to September 1838 in the Town of Southeast. The family’s first formal enumeration appears in the 1840 census as “free colored persons” under “Jas Myres,” a Black head of household, with a family of five, including three boys under the age of ten. Francis Oliver Myers, also referred to as Oliver or F.O. in records and newspaper archives, born circa 1840, was undoubtedly one of those young boys.
The Long List of Glory
In August 1858, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, indomitable abolitionist, author/publisher and orator, was already well known in Putnam County as he had visited the Hudson Valley area to address emancipation. The Putnam County Courier newspaper covered his appearance at College Grove in the City of Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, a reasonable ride from Myers’ home. Editors referred to the appearance of “Fred Douglass” as remarkable in his address of “the woolly heads” and “young colored sparks and damsels … as plentiful as blackberries.” The Hudson Valley was brimming with interest.
Years later, following Lincoln’s proclamation, Douglass called out the need to raise men for the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, slated to be the first regiment of Black Northerners to join the Civil War. His article, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist,” appeared in the April 1863 issue of Douglass’ Monthly. In it, he provided nine compelling reasons, a mixture of rights and wrongs, the duty of men regardless of color, citizenship and self-respect in this time of emancipation. He concludes, “When times’s ample curtain shall fall upon our national tragedy … and history shall record the names of heroes and martyrs – who bravely answered the call of patriotism and Liberty … let it not be said that in the long list of glory, composed of men of all nations –there appears the name of no colored man.” Around that same time, recruitment posters for the 54th were distributed to draw attention to the need for volunteers of “African Descent”, with a call to action: “Colored men, Rally ‘Round the Flag of Freedom!’”
Shortly after Douglass’ famed question and answers, Myers made his way to Readville, Massachusetts, and on May 5th, 1863, enlisted with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers, committing to three years of service. On that day, Private “Frank” Myers set his course to be a Black man in blue, bound for Union glory.
Within days, Myers was mustered into service at Camp Meigs in Readville, and assigned to Company K. The 54th, which consisted of Black enlisted personnel including two sons of Frederick Douglass along with a grandson of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The officers were white.
On May 28th, the 54th received its colors and the regiment paraded through Boston heralded by thousands of onlookers as they marched through the site of the Boston Massacre of 1770. Eventually they boarded the steamer De Molay heading to South Carolina. Under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment arrived in Hilton Head, and by June 3rd was moved to Beaufort in anticipation of taking Charleston. For Private Myers, this was a quick transition from sign-up to service.
Shortly after arrival, the 54th was assigned to attack Fort Wagner, one of the forts protecting the valuable harbor. Colonel Shaw and his men proceeded to Morris Island and were ordered to lead the assault from the beachfront in the dark of night on July 18th, 1863.
According to the unit’s history (published over 25 years later), in the advance, the regiment immediately received musketry fire and “howitzers work” of the garrison defending the fort, and the men of the 54th started to fall. As Colonel Shaw led on “gaining the rampart, he stood there for a moment with uplifted sword, shouting ‘Forward Fifty-fourth!’ and then fell dead, shot through the heart…” Colonel Shaw would fall with far too many of his men.
One survivor’s recollections were recorded from that exact, fateful moment. According to a Port Royal correspondent for the New York Post, “Frank Myers, whose arm was badly shattered by a shell, said, ‘Oh! I thank God so much for the privilege: I went in to live or die, as he please.’ He stood right under the uplifted sword of their brave Colonel Shaw, on the very top of the parapet, as he cried, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and then suddenly fell, quickly followed by Myers himself.”
That night, the struggle was hopeless and the remains of the 54th were ultimately forced to withdraw. Private Myers laid on the beach, suffering grievous wounds including the loss of the use of his arm, along with wounds to his head and back. Remnants of the regiment were regrouped by Captain Luis F. Emilio, the only commissioned officer not killed or wounded.
Following the battle, the wounded were carried back to Beaufort as onlookers met the boats with shock. As if discussing Private Myers, the July 25th, 1863 issue of The Free South reported, “As we looked upon some youthful form, lying upon a stretcher, with a cloth covering a torn and shattered limb, and watched the struggle to bear up with fortitude and patience, we bowed in spirit to a hero as great as any whose fame has employed the pen of the historian or the muse of the poet.”
O, Give Us a Flag
Just days after the attack on Fort Wagner, the abolitionist newspaper The Anglo-African printed: “The following song was written by a private in Co. A 54th (colored) Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, and has been sent to us for publication by a friend of the regiment: –” It was entitled “A Negro-Volunteer Song,” intended to be performed to the Air, “Hoist up the Flag!” and it reflects on the words of Douglass and the regiment recruitment poster calling for Black men to “rally” around “the Flag of Freedom:”
Fremont told them when the war it first begun,
How to save the Union, and the way it should be done;
But Kentucky swore so hard, and old Abe he had his fears,
Till every hope was lost but the colored volunteers.
Chorus – O, give us a flag, all free without a slave,
We’ll fight to defend it as our Fathers did so brave,
The gallant Comp’ny A will make the rebels dance,
And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.
McClellan went to Richmond with two hundred thousand brave,
He said “keep back the niggers,” and the Union he would save.
Little Mac he had his way, still the Union is in tears,
Now they call for the help of the colored volunteers.
Chor.– O, give us a flag, & c.
Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,
A very big thing, but we are not at all alarmed,
For he first has go to catch us before the way is clear,
And “that’s what’s the matter” with the colored volunteer.
Chor.– O, give us a flag, & c.
So rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past,
We had a hard road to travel but our day is coming fast,
For God is for the right and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.
Chor.– O, give us a flag, & c. [Boston Transcript]
For months, Myers remained in Beaufort at Hospital 10, sick and wounded, until his disability discharge in February 1864. Later that month, The Anglo-African published something familiar entitled, “The Colored Volunteer.” This was a poem attributed to Frank Myres, “Who was led by the gallant Col. Shaw, at the Charge of Fort Wagner.” The poem, along with other research crediting Private Frank Myers as a soldier and poet, were brought to light in 2019 by Eliza Richards in her book Battle Lines: Poetry and Mass Media in the U.S. Civil War (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Fremont told us, when this war first begun,
How to save the Union, and the way it should be done;
But Kentucky swore so hard, Old Abe had his fears,
But soon they were dispelled by the Colored Volunteers.
We’ve passed our brethren in their chains, nor sought to set them free;
But now we fight to save them, and our flag of liberty.
We’ll fight them, though the earth be strewn with brothers slain,
We’ll fight them, and ne’er falter, ‘till liberty we gain.
O, give us a flag which, through the march of time,
Shall wave in glorious triump o’er all this southern clime;
It is our Abraham’s choice, and gives us all good cheer,
For underneath its folds fights the Colored Volunteer.
The gallant Fifty-fourth, roused by freedom’s battle cry,
Said, We’ll go, meet every foe, and conquer them or die.
We will stand by the Union, if we only have a chance.
In doing which, we’re very sure we’ll make the rebels dance.
McClellan went to Richmond with two hundred thousand brave.
He said, “Keep back the negroes, and the Union we will save.”
Little Mack had his way, still the Union is in tears;
They call now for the help of the Colored Volunteers.
Old Jeff says he’ll hang us, if we dare to meet him armed.
‘Tis a very big thing, but we’re not at all alarmed;
For he has first to catch us before the way is clear,
And that’s what’s the matter with the Colored Volunteer.
Forth, with the flaunt of banners, and the drum’s inspiring sound,
We swept his treacherous hordes from freedom’s holy ground.
There were brave hearts among us, and we sent them to the rear;
So that’s why they hate us, the Colored Volunteer.
The gallant Fifty-fourth! They’re fearless and they’re bold;
May their courage never fail, and the ardor ne’er grow cold.
Then rally round the flag, for to us it is most dear,
Bright star of liberty to each Colored Volunteer.
The train is moving slowly on, never mind the past;
We’ve had a hard road to travel, but good days are coming fast.
For God is for the right, and we have no need to fear;
The Union must be saved by the Colored Volunteer.
Heading Home to Putnam County, New York
Due to his race, Myers was deemed disqualified for service in the Invalid Corps. His disability records state he suffered from paralysis of his right arm and atrophy of the muscles with additional wounds. This led to his promotion to Corporal and his discharge was officially signed February 3rd, 1864. At some point thereafter, Myers – Putnam County’s Black man in blue – headed home, forever changed.
There is no known newspaper coverage that marks a homecoming for Francis Oliver Myers, as local Civil War era newspapers were all but out of print. It is assumed that he returned to his family’s home in the Dykeman’s Station section of the Town of Southeast.
Confederate troops surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865. A little over a year later, back in Putnam County, the Courier published a brief death column entitled “The Tomb.” It stated, “Oliver Myers,” aged “about 30 years,” had died on May 19th, 1866, in Southeast.
The first record of Decoration Day events in Southeast was published in The Brewster Standard of 1871 as a procession visited the “Mill Town Cemetery,” and Oliver Myers is listed as a private whose grave was heralded along with others in prayer and song.
By 1879, Myers was included in the local newspaper’s “Roll of Honor” for Decoration Day and was listed as having “died at Dykeman’s Station, from wound received at Fort Wagner…”
In 1891, Captain Luis F. Emilio published “A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865.” In this important work, he documents Frank Myers, of Company K, as having “stood under the uplifted arm of Colonel Shaw, while that officer was on the parapet, waving his sword, and crying, “Forward, Fifty-fourth!” He saw the colonel suddenly fall, and was struck himself a moment after.”
However, in the history’s compiled roster by George F. McKay, Captain of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry (Bvt. Major U.S. V.), Francis Myers is incorrectly listed as coming from Paterson, New Jersey, with the same dates of enlistment, wounds, and discharge of Myers born in Patterson, New York. This attribution, cited and republished continually for over 130 years, still associates Myers with Paterson, New Jersey, including sources at the National Park Service, Faces of the 54th: Soldiers and Officers Database and the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition “Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.” Efforts are currently underway to correct these records.
Accordingly, Myers’ true birthplace has been misreported in history books and secondary sources for years. His military records state that he was born in Patterson, NY and returned to Southeast. There is no historical evidence that he had any affiliation with New Jersey.
Today, Myers’s headstone in the Milltown Rural Cemetery has become indecipherable due to the elements. As a result, his grave is often overlooked for marking with an American flag during Memorial Day decorating. Efforts to create a new, lasting memorial to highlight Myers’ courage, sacrifice and service are in progress.
Long ago, Francis Oliver Myers well-earned his place on what Frederick Douglass deemed, “the long list of glory.” He is Putnam County’s hero who fought for liberty, and through his poetry “employed the pen of the historian” and “the muse of the poet.” His headstone marks a grave of glory.
Illustrations, from above: F.O. Myers military headstone at the Milltown Rural Cemetery in Brewster, New York (photo by Ellen Cassidy); Recruiting poster for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, J.E. Farwell & Co, 1863, Wikicommons; “The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863,” mural at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. , The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.