Black Civil War Soldiers Finally get Recognition in Salem Cemetery

May 24, 2019

Virginia is known for monuments to Civil War generals and soldiers.

This weekend, two new markers will be dedicated at a Salem cemetery. But the stories are not what you might expect.

Larkin Burwell and William Keaton both joined the army during the Civil War, fought around Petersburg and after the war lived, died and were buried in Salem.  But theirs isn’t the stereotypical southern soldier’s story.

The flag of Larkin Burwell's regiment, the 127th USCT.
Credit Creative Commons

Both were African Americans.  Larkin Burwell escaped from the Botetourt County plantation where he was enslaved and joined the Union Army.  William Keaton was likely born a freeman in Philadelphia and also fought for the Union.

Their graves in Salem’s segregated cemetery were unmarked and their stories largely forgotten until Lee Hadden and the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans got involved.

"Larkin Burwell and William Keaton and some other men who are buried in the area risked everything," Hadden notes.  "To fight for freedom is indeed a holy thing. It’s a good thing.  And their work should be recognized."

Hadden researched the men for more than a year, filing paperwork with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get military tombstones that honored their service.  It's a process he'd gone through before.  "Most of them don't take as much effort," he admits.

Getting veterans benefits took effort in Burwell and Keaton's time, as well.  Larkin Burwell's application for a pension from the U. S. government was held up because he did not know his own birth date, a situation that was not unusual for formerly enslaved people Hadden says.  William Keaton, who could read and write, helped other veterans with paperwork.

Markers to Burwell and Keaton will be dedicated Saturday morning at 10:00 in Salem’s East Hill North Cemetery.

"To be able to give them the dignity of a headstone is the least we can do," Hadden says.