Last week, I shared with you my return to Dayton’s Old Greencastle Cemetery and some of my family’s history there. This time, I’m branching out into the cemetery to see what stories I can uncover. One of them is definitely bittersweet and involves a father and son who both saw military action but ended up with very different fates.
Phil showed me a Union soldier’s marker that was close to my great-great-grandfather Samuel’s for a man named Robert Fisher and that his was a story worth sharing. It is believed that Robert was a former slave who had escaped from his native Kentucky at the time of his enlistment.
Born in 1837, Robert went by more than one last name. You can find him going by Fisher, Burditt (or Burdett), and Johnson. When I did research a few years back on some young men who had enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops in Charleston, S.C., I learned that this was fairly common at the time.
Runaway Slave Enlists in the Union Army
Robert was 26 when enlisted at Camp Danville in Kentucky on Aug. 18, 1864. Camp Nelson was established in 1863 as a recruiting station and quartermaster supply base for military operations into East Tennessee.
In the spring of 1864, when African-American soldiers were finally allowed to be recruited and trained in Kentucky, Camp Nelson became the largest center for U.S. Colored Troops in the state. Thousands of slaves and free men of color flocked to Camp Nelson to enlist and train for the U.S. Army. Many of the soldiers’ families came, too, seeking refuge.
Robert was placed as a private with the Battery G of the 12th USCT Heavy Artillery. I don’t know exactly what Robert did or saw. But according to what I’ve read, the 12th served railroad guard duty at various points in Tennessee and Alabama on line of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad until December 1864.
The 12th was attached to the 2nd Colored Brigade, District of the Etowah, Department of the Cumberland, to January 1865, with defenses of Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, District of Middle Tennessee, to May 1865. They were also involved in the 3rd Sub-District, District Middle Tennessee, Department of the Cumberland, to January 1866. Robert’s records indicate he mustered out in April 1866 in Louisville, Ky.
Return to Dayton
I don’t know what Robert married Emma Morgan but it was before 1870 and they had six children: Walter, William, Mame, Emma, Clara, and Robert. The 1880 Census lists them as living in what is now Huber Heights (a suburb of Dayton) at that time with Robert working as a farmhand.
By 1890, Robert had lived in the Old Soldier’s Home in Dayton briefly before moving to the newly opened Marion Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Marion, Ind. He was possibly suffering from wounds incurred during his time in the Civil War. He would have been 56 by then. It wasn’t until I uncovered what happened later that I realized his family situation had possibly deteriorated to the point that separating from them may have been by choice.
Robert and Emma’s oldest son, Walter (born in 1870), followed in his father’s footsteps when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to Co. K of the Ninth Cavalry. Known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the Ninth was one of the Army’s four segregated African-American regiments. It saw combat during the Indian and Spanish–American Wars. During Westward Expansion, the regiment provided security for the early Western settlers and defended the American borders against Indian bands, Mexican encroachment, and criminal elements.
I could find nothing about what Walter personally did as part of the Ninth Cavalry but I believe at the time he was serving, his company was stationed at Fort Robinson near Crawford, Nebraska.
Brother Against Brothers
By 1894, Walter was back in Dayton working in a the saloon the family owned on Auburn Street with his siblings. According to a newspaper article I read, it was located in a neighborhood with a bad reputation where brawls and shootings were common. There was bad blood between the youngest Fisher son, 15-year-old Robert Jr., and his brothers. The feud reached a boiling point on Aug. 21, 1894 when Robert walked into the saloon and shot Walter dead. He was 24 years old.
An additional article mentioned that Walter’s girlfriend, Nettie Simpson, committed suicide by overdosing on morphine shortly after hearing of his violent demise.
By contrast, the article describes Robert Sr. as “a hard-working and honest colored man. He is of Herculean build, and yet is a peaceable and law-abiding citizen.” It made me wonder what happened to this family over the years to bring it to this sad state of affairs. Did Robert Sr. wash his hands of the situation and seek refuge in Marion, Ind. because of it?
On Dec. 14, 1894, Robert Jr. was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in the penitentiary despite his attorney’s request that he be sent to reform school. That same year, in October, William Fisher was accused of being involved with murdering two veterans with the assistance of two of his sisters. He, too, was charged with manslaughter. But if William served any time for it, he was back home by 1900 when the U.S. Census notes he was tending bar again on Auburn Street with his mother and siblings.
Robert Sr. died in 1917 at the age of 80, his remains returned to Dayton for burial in Old Greencastle. He had no marker at that time but the SUV fellows ordered one for him. William died the same year at age 46 and is buried in an unmarked grave at Old Greencastle. Robert Jr. died in Michigan in 1929 and is also buried in an unmarked grave. Brother Henry died in 1939 and sister Mary in 1919, both buried in unmarked graves. I could not trace Emma’s whereabouts but she had moved to be near Robert Jr. in Detroit during the 1920s.
A Musical Minister
I did find the grave of someone who had an association with the original church connected with Old Greencastle Cemetery.
A native of Virginia, the Rev. William R. Rhinehart was born in 1800 and wed Barbara Bender in 1824. According to his Find a Grave memorial, he was composer of hymns and songs in addition to being a Church of the Brethren pastor. He, Barbara, and their son William were living in Clear Spring, Md. in the 1830s when he published a singing school book of songs.
If you read my first blog post about Old Greencastle Cemetery, you know that its name comes from the “Greencastle Circuit” of the United Brethren churches (a sect from Germany that still exists today) to which the church belonged. The Greencastle plat itself predates 1826 and is one of the oldest in Dayton.
Rev. Rhinehart belonged to the United Brethren and his association with them eventually brought him to Dayton. I believe he was employed by the original Miami Chapel United Brethren Church that was next to Old Greencastle Cemetery. It is mentioned in his will. That church was torn down and rebuilt in 1912 but is unoccupied today. Son William married Elizabeth Felker in 1855 and worked as a carpenter.
Rev. Rhinehart died in 1861 at the age of 61. His wife, Barbara, died in 1881 at age 81. Both of them have markers at Old Greencastle. William died in 1914 but does not have a marker.
An Anonymous Collection
I’m going to finish out this post with something I don’t normally do. As is typical of many cemeteries, you’ll find markers that may have had a name on them that has since worn away or been broken off. That doesn’t make them any less meaningful, but perhaps more mysterious.
This first heart-shaped one appealed to me because of the colorful glass pieces inserted around the edges. My grandfather used to have a stone bench at his house in Centerville, Ohio that looked similar. The hummingbird at the stop is especially whimsical.
Then there’s this cast iron lamb, which has seen better days. I am guessing it was meant for a child’s grave. There is no name on it.
Then there’s this last one that I first saw in 2012 and fell in love with. I have no idea who this little stone house was built for but if you look closely, you can see the word “Father” on the roof. I had to take a picture of it again. Was this man a carpenter? A builder? I’ll probably never know.
Saying goodbye to Old Greencastle Cemetery was harder this time because I had a stronger connection to it now and had met the people taking care of my ancestors’ final resting place. I am grateful to the local volunteers who come out for clean up days and the folks to the SUV, Sherman Camp #93 that continue to care for the graves as best they can. It’s not an easy task.
Old Greencastle’s future looks bright, despite the fact there are no funds to maintain it and the city has no interest in providing any. There are going to be times when it looks a little rough around the edges, especially during the summer when the grass grows quickly. But this is a fate common to many old, abandoned cemeteries facing similar circumstances. I feel blessed that this one is getting any attention at all.
Next time, I’ll be exploring Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery, where more of my family is buried.