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THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
by DIANA SHAMAN
Dateline: June 7, 2015
The American Civil War was remembered in Kew Gardens early this month at Maple Grove Cemetery, where several Civil War veterans and historic figures of that period lie buried.
The commemoration was conducted by a re-enactment group in period dress portraying members of the 26th Regiment United States Colored Troops. The regiment, founded in 1861, was composed of 200,000 free black men who volunteered to fight for the North.
The Friends of Maple Grove, a non-profit volunteer group that promotes appreciation of the historic 65-acre cemetery on Kew Gardens Road, sponsored the event which was open free to the public.
Visitors, escorted by a color guard carrying an American flag and the 26th Regiment Colors, were first led on a tour by Carl Ballenas, the President of the Friends group, as well as the cemetery’s Historian. He pointed out the graves of eight individuals from the Civil War period that he felt merited particular appreciation on this occasion.
Two were Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Edward Wright, a quartermaster aboard the U.S.S. Cayuga, had been cited by President Lincoln for extraordinary heroism during the capture of Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson in Louisiana and the capture of New Orleans, events that took place on April 24 and April 26, 1862. Captain George W. Corliss of the 5th Connecticut Infantry won his medal for displaying extraordinary bravery on August 9, 1862, when he seized the fallen flag of his regiment and carried it forward even though he had been severely wounded.
Among other war veterans who lie buried here is Zachariah Dennler, a doctor, who became assistant surgeon in the New York 10th Heavy Artillery. More notably, he removed the assassin’s bullet as he vainly tried to save the life of President Lincoln.
Henry Roswell Heath, another veteran of the war, lies buried in the Maple Section of the cemetery. He was just sixteen when he enlisted, responding to the call for volunteers after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. He lied to recruiters that he was eighteen. Joseph Teagle, once a slave and also a war veteran, enlisted in the United States Navy. After the war, he came north and settled in Jamaica, where he worked as a postman.
The cemetery also contains several black notables from the era. George Washington Johnson became the country’s first black recording star after he was freed from slavery. He was hired by the New York Phonograph and the New Jersey Phonograph companies to sing and record a hit song of the time, Whistling Song, that sold as many as 50,000 copies. But when a member of Sunday’s re-enactment group played a rendition of the song on a fife, it provoked non-stop howls from Mr. Ballenas’s constant companion, his dog Sky, lending a touch of merriment to the occasion.
Buried close to Mr. Johnson is Millie Tunnell, a former slave, whose master set her free but who also had to buy part of her freedom. She came north and settled in Jamaica, 1863, living until the age of 111. Victoria Earle Matthews, also a former slave, moved to New York and became a journalist and a champion of black women’s issues and of social welfare reforms. Maple Grove is also the site of an African American burial ground, where members of the historic Shiloh Church lie buried.
After Mr. Ballenas recounted the histories at each gravesite, pupils from the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates where he teaches history, placed potted flowers at each of the eight graves.
Visitors could also explore the encampment set up near the cemetery entrance to get glimpses of the life of soldiers in the field and to view rifle drills, and other activities.
Later, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz paid tribute to Maple Grove for its many cultural achievements and contributions to Queens. City Councilmember Rory I. Lancman also attended. Ms. Katz presented a plaque to honor the 26th Regiment United States Colored Troops, and she praised its historical interpreters for keeping the regiment’s history alive through the enactment and other activities it had provided that day.