A soldier’s legacy, a leader’s dream

Jared Jackson’s life in Schenectady and service in the Civil War had been all but forgotten a decade
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Jared Jackson’s life in Schenectady and service in the Civil War had been all but forgotten a decade ago.

The black soldier’s small headstone was covered with moss and obscured by brush when Neil Yetwin and a group of Schenectady High School students found it in a neglected section of Vale Cemetery, then known as “the colored plot.” Lacking much information about the soldier, the teacher turned to the Library of Congress for Jackson’s military records, which revealed a tale of dignified service persistently undermined by subtle bureaucratic prejudice.

“The more we know of history, the greater effort we can take to right these wrongs,” Yetwin told a crowd of nearly 200 people gathered at the First Methodist Church for the service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday. “The more we know of Jackson, the more we can breath the freedom in the air.”

Before the service, county Human Rights Commission Executive Director Brian Wright led a group of nearly 100 marchers from the church steps around a block of State Street in commemoration of King’s memory. Those taking the brisk walk amid temperatures hovering in the teens were greeted warmly at the church by the sound of the Martin Luther King Community Choir inside.

During the ceremony, community and church leaders led a chorus of songs and praise for the fallen King, who would have turned 79 last week. The Rev. Eloise Frazier, chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition, remembered the civil rights leader as a pillar of the movement who was strong in body, mind, and spirit.

“He had a dream, but we have to keep that dream alive,” she said.

Yetwin offered Jackson’s story as an example of the many prejudices that faced the black community prior to King’s work. The 23-year-old Jackson was among tens of thousands of blacks who enlisted in Company N of the 20th Regiment after the War Department created the “United States Colored Troops” in 1863 as the Civil War raged on.

But instead of facing combat, the 20th Regiment was destined for more menial tasks as laborers, cooks and guards in areas with inhospitable working conditions rife with disease. Jackson was among a 200-soldier contingent sent to Elmira to guard a hastily constructed prison camp for Confederate soldiers.

The conditions at the camp were deplorable, Yetwin explained, with more than 10,000 captured rebels inhabiting 35 buildings. Tensions among the Confederate inmates were further aggravated by the contingent of black soldiers station to guard them; Yetwin said the captured soldiers would frequently curse and spit at the guards.

“Yet members of the 20th managed to maintain their composure during the ordeal,” he said.

Yetwin said the 20th regiment rightfully gained a reputation as being “entirely reliable and trustworthy” in their duties at the camp that became known as “Hellmira.” This reputation didn’t prevent them from being the first unit blamed for allowing 10 Confederate inmates to escape, despite documentation placing blame with a group of white guards who fell asleep.

Even after Jackson was discharged from the military in 1865, Yetwin said the soldier had to fight for what was rightfully his. He wasn’t granted his $12-per-month military pension until February 1888, just 10 months before he died from tuberculosis and chronic liver disease.

Today, Jackson remains the only known black Civil War soldier buried in Schenectady. Yetwin stressed the importance of reviving the stories of black soldiers and the tremendous odds they battled during an age where civil rights were but a dream for many.

“There are 186,000 stories like [Jackson’s],” he said. “He’s just one.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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