It took more than a year, but a local history and genealogy group has successfully lobbied the Department of Veteran Affairs. The goal: get proper recognition for the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry.
There are 564 mass gravesites at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. In Section 57, over 100 members of the 56th are buried in a mass grave. Even though the grave marker says unknown soldiers, the identities of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry have been known for decades. With names like Silas Jefford and Jupiter Mack, the 56th members are former Missouri slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War. Anyone with a computer can find their records online, www.fold3.com.
That's why Sara Cato and the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society lobbied the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington for over a year to recognize the soldiers by name. Cato says in the beginning she was not optimistic about dealing with the VA.
"I expected them to tell us that we had no standing, and be on your way," Cato said. "Instead they've given us an opportunity to recognize the men."
The VA recently told Cato that 118 members of the 56th will be recognized with a bronze plaque listing all of their names. But there are another 55 soldiers who died of cholera while traveling on riverboats, who were buried in unmarked graves along the banks of the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Missouri. Their names won't be listed unless next of kin can be located.
"Regulations that govern the Veterans Administration say that memorials can only be requested by the next of kin," said Cato.
Cato hopes that stories like this will cause descendants to come forward. If Cato can located just one descendant of any of the 55 soldiers, those names will be included on the bronze memorial.
"It's our obligation to find those descendants so everyone can be recognized," said Cato.
To learn more about the 56th, including a list of the 55 soldiers buried on Mississippi River banks, www.stl-aahgs.com.