Remembering a Civil War soldier and civil rights advocate

May 21, 2020 by

Published May 22, 2020

By JAMES BENNETT

FROM THE BOSTON GUARDIAN of January 13, 1912. (Courtesy Photo)

MELROSE — Early in the morning on Valentine’s Day of 1918, an 83 year old retired pipefitter named Wesley J. Furlong died peacefully in his bed at 47 Sanford Street. Some of his neighbors grieved his loss, but most Melrosians were too busy with the war effort to pay his death much heed, and six months later they had many more to mourn when the influenza pandemic struck Melrose. By then, Furlong’s children had sold their childhood home on Sanford Street, and memory of their father’s residence there would soon be forgotten. That collective amnesia was a great loss, for Furlong had been both a Civil War soldier and a civil rights advocate, and stood among the most heroic people ever to call Melrose home.

That he managed to survive and thrive was unlikely. He was born into the brutality of chattel slavery in 1835 in Martinsburg, Virginia. His mother was a member of the Methodist church there, and named her son after the founder of that tradition. The soil in that part of Virginia was exhausted, slavery was becoming less profitable, and one by one Furlong’s master began selling off his parents and brothers to slave traders in Baltimore, who then shipped them down to be sold in New Orleans. Sometime in his late teens or early twenties, before he could be carted off to the Baltimore slave pens, Furlong escaped north. Later in his life he managed to track down a brother in Pennsylvania. He never saw his parents or his other four brothers again.

By 1860 he was working in New Bedford as a waiter, living in a house with others who had escaped from slavery. When the Civil War erupted a year later, no encouragement was given to black men to serve in the Union Army, but following the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, desperate army recruiters began canvassing black neighborhoods looking for re-enforcements. In February of 1863, a concerted effort was made to drum up recruits for the newly formed Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry among the black community in New Bedford. Furlong was among those who answered that call. At one of those meetings he was chosen to address the other recruits, and declared that “The black man must put down this war,” for he wanted to be known as one who “fought for the liberty of his race and to prove himself a man.”

Furlong’s service with the Massachusetts 54th would be the defining event of his life. He was quickly promoted, serving as a sergeant in Company C, a unit comprised mostly of New Bedford recruits who adopted the sobriquet “The Toussaint Guards” in honor of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. For Furlong and his fellow recruits, their service was both a pledge of loyalty to the United States and an act of extraordinary racial empowerment, as they would serve as agents of their own people’s liberation. Their most famous engagement came at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, when about one-quarter of the regiment suffered casualties. Furlong served as left guide in the charge on Fort Wagner, under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Furlong survived the battle, Gould did not, and Furlong would later name his only son, Robert Gould Shaw Furlong, in honor of his commanding officer’s memory. The two-year tour of duty of the Massachusetts 54th would prove to be of more than just military significance. Prior to the service of the 54th, the 55th, and other all-black regiments, many white Americans doubted the bravery of black men and their fighting ability, as well as their loyalty to the United States. The service of Furlong and his fellow soldiers put that myth to rest—or at least it would for a short while.

In 1865, Furlong returned to New Bedford, where he served for some years as captain of the Schouler Guards, a military drill group made up of black Civil War veterans, who each year marched in the first of the annual Memorial Day parades. He also served as a leader in an African-American temperance society. Around 1875 he decamped from New Bedford, took up residence on the north slope of Beacon Hill in Boston, married his wife Elizabeth, and worked as a porter at the Bijou Theatre on Washington Street. He became a member of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, which would remain his spiritual home for the rest of his life. It was also in these years that he became Major of the Robert Gould Shaw Veteran Association, the alumni association of black Civil War veterans in Boston. In that capacity, Furlong led the honor guard at funerals, parades, commemorations, and other significant events in the life of African-American Boston for the next forty years, and became a well-known figure in the community.

In 1891, after spending his entire adult life in predominately black neighborhoods, Furlong moved to Melrose, a city with only a handful of black families. No doubt he made that decision for his children, who would now grow up in a less polluted, less crowded, and quieter setting than the tenements of Beacon Hill, albeit one where they would feel less comfortable in their own skin. Settling in the largely Irish enclave of Cork City, Furlong sent his daughter Edith and his son Robert to the neighborhood Gooch School, and then to Melrose High School, from which they would both graduate. Furlong would live in his Sanford Street home for almost 30 years, the longest he ever lived at one address.

In 1910 Furlong’s wife Elizabeth died. Both of his surviving children would soon marry and move from Melrose. Now in his late 70s, Furlong finally retired from his late career as a gasfitter. Yet only in these last years of his life would he reinvent himself as a modern civil rights activist. By the turn of the 20th century, the optimism of the Civil War’s aftermath had given way to the sad reality of a new racial accommodation in America: the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision had declared segregation legal, a violent regime of lynchings unleashed a reign of terror on African-Americans, and the Ku Klux Klan became a potent force in American politics. At the same time, a revisionist school of history began to argue that American slavery had been a benign institution and that the Confederacy had been a states’ rights movement that was the victim of Northern aggression.

Furlong, by that time one of only three surviving veterans of the Massachusetts 54th, was outraged. He joined the leadership of National Equal Rights League, a group that had splintered from the NAACP, preferring direct action and all-black leadership to compromise and white paternalism. In 1915 the NERL organized mass protests against the screening of “The Birth of a Nation” in Boston, and Furlong spoke at the rally at Faneuil Hall against the film. They succeeded in getting the movie banned in Boston. To little avail, the group lobbied Massachusetts Congressmen to stem the tide of Woodrow Wilson’s expansion of segregation. In 1917, less than a year before his death, Furlong was among the signatories to a petition that was dear to his heart, the racial integration of American soldiers marching off to fight in the Great War. A half-century after Furlong had marched south with the Massachusetts 54th, many white Americans speculated that black Americans could not be trusted to serve in the army. Furlong and rest of the NERL executive committee wrote:

“Give, Mr. President and all our governors, the same encouragement for volunteering or enlisting to white, to brown, to yellow, to black, Americans all, vouchsafing the same free chance to enlist, to rise on merit, and on return home the same right to civil service and to civil rights without bar or segregation. Now is the time for all in authority to declare for the abolition of all racial discrimination and proscriptions and for all to join in our unhyphenated Americanism for victory under the favor of the God of all mankind.”

Wesley Furlong, who had escaped slavery and fought the slave power, died at age 83 while still fighting against the racial hatred that had defined the course of his life. His funeral took place in Melrose at Memorial Hall, a new building that had just been erected to honor the Civil War dead. Since that February day in 1918, Melrose has largely forgotten him. Yet there are opportunities to correct course. The city has announced plans to renovate Memorial Hall, and a permanent marker that tells Furlong’s story could be part of that project. The neighborhood school that Furlong’s children attended, once called the Gooch and now called the Beebe, is set to reopen in the near future. It may be time to rename the school again, to honor a Melrose citizen whose life story touches on so many of the values that people in Melrose hold dear. No matter what route is chosen, one thing is certain: Furlong’s life deserves public recognition.

Author’s Note: I wish to thank Brigid Alverson for first telling me about Wesley Furlong. All research for this project was conducted during quarantine, and the final product suffers from a lack of access to archives and libraries. I invite anyone interested in memorializing Furlong to email me at jamesbennett1850@gmail.com.

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