About twenty men of color who identified Nantucket as their hometown served in the Union Navy and the Union Army (Massachusetts 5th Cavalry).
Robert Mooney, local Civil War historian, has recounted many stories of both the island’s Civil War dead and those who returned home after the war.
Among those who served were twenty or so African Americans and other men of color who identified Nantucket as their hometown. Most served in the Union Navy, but three joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.
According to the research of Frank Dorman and Richard Miller, Isaac Barlow, Nathaniel Borden, Benajah Boston Jr., Oliver Boston, James W. Dennison (a Wampanoag originally from Cape Cod), Charles G. Godfrey Jr., George H. Gordon, William Hines, Andrew Johnson, John Lemon, Joseph W. Maxcy, Sampson Pompey, Joseph Simons, William Vose, Robert L. Whitfield, and Barzillai Williams served in the Union Navy. George Michael, Lewis Mills, and Hiram Reed served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.
In October 1891, veterans Sampson Pompey, George Michael, and Hiram Reed were elected charter members of the Nantucket Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. When Pompey, Michael, Reed, and their fellow veteran Joseph Simons went to their final rest in the Historic Coloured Cemetery, their graves were marked with U.S. Government markers. To this day, each grave is decorated with an American flag on Memorial Day.
Hiram Reed was the first enslaved man freed on the authority of the American military during the Civil War. Arriving in Nantucket, he enlisted in the Union Army, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, and served with distinction, receiving a commendation for bravery. Immediately after the war, he married Isabella Draper, a woman of mixed African and Nantucket Wampanoag heritage. The couple lived on Pleasant Street and had no children.
Benajah Boston Jr., cousin of Nantucket’s black whaling captain Absalom Boston, served in the Union Navy and received a pension. After the war he stayed away from Nantucket until 1916, when he came home long enough to give an account of his eventful life to the Inquirer and Mirror. He died in Rock Island, Illinois, leaving on Nantucket no marker or inscription commemorating his service in the war.
The wife of Oliver Boston, son of Absalom Boston, was a New Bedford woman, and after Oliver’s discharge from the Union Navy, they lived in New Bedford and Boston before he died at the age of 36, leaving no children.
Until recently it has been thought that all men of color who served survived the war, so none of their names appear on the monument. Recently, however, Frank Morral has made the case that the seventy-fourth name—John Swain—belatedly inscribed on the monument, is the same John Swain interred in Nantucket’s Coloured Cemetery with a death date of April 25, 1865. If this is correct, one man of color from Nantucket died during the Civil War. Although he was “coloured,” he was not African American but a Native Hawaiian from the whaling port Lahaina on the island of Maui. According to his death notice printed in the Inquirer and Mirror on April 29, 1865, John Swain of Lahaina, did not die on a battlefield but “in this town.” The circumstances of his death are unknown, and there is no service record for him.
At one time, Monument Square was the site of Nantucket’s Town Building. Court was held there, and the town whipping post was nearby. At the time of the American Revolution, despite Quaker objections, a liberty pole had been erected in the intersection. As the center of town activities migrated toward the waterfront, the Town Building was abandoned. A brick building occupying a block between Union Street and Washington Street was taken over to serve in its place. The American Civil War was the first in which the Nantucket community willingly participated. Previously, Quaker pacifism had kept Nantucketers out of combat, but to the Civil War, the island sent three hundred thirty-nine men, fifty-six over the town’s quota. In the post-Civil War era, Quakerism and the whaling industry had both collapsed on Nantucket, and the whipping post and the liberty pole had long since faded from memory. The intersection of Main Street with Gardner and Milk Streets was no longer a hub of activity, but it retained an aura of by-gone importance. Where better to place Nantucket’s Civil War monument?
Work commenced in October 1874. One of the millstones from the recently demolished Roundtop Mill was recycled as the base for the obelisk, on which are inscribed the names of Nantucket’s Union dead, seventy-four in all. On May 29, 1875, Nantucket’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was dedicated. Of those who went to war, only the names of the men who died appear on the Monument.
See “More than Names: The Men on the Monument” in Hidden History of Nantucket by Frank Morral and Barbara Ann White (History Press 2015) and The Civil War: The Nantucket Experience by Richard Miller and Robert Mooney (Wesco Press 1994).