Black Civil War troops honored in Burlco

Visitors gather in the cemetery in Timbuctoo, Westampton Twp., for the service honoring black Civil War veterans.
Visitors gather in the cemetery in Timbuctoo, Westampton Twp., for the service honoring black Civil War veterans. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: May 29, 2012

On a frigid, moonlit night in 1860, four horse-drawn coaches pulled up at a small, two-room house in Westampton, Burlington County, and a dozen armed men got out. They were looking for Perry Simmons, a fugitive slave.

But Simmons wasn't giving up without a fight. He grabbed two loaded guns and a sharpened logging ax, then climbed a narrow stairway - with his wife and children - to a garret, where he planned to make a stand.

Family members yelled "murder" and "kidnappers" to attract the help of neighbors who came to their rescue with guns, knives, and axes that morning of Nov. 30, just months before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The men of nearby Timbuctoo, a village with other runaways, drove off the slave-hunters at what became known as the Battle of Pine Swamp, and they were partly inspired by that confrontation to later take up arms as Union soldiers.

Members of the U.S. Colored Troops, buried in a tiny Timbuctoo cemetery, were honored Sunday as part a Memorial Day weekend observance that included a group of black Civil War reenactors and a choir from a Burlington Township church founded at the village in 1845.

"For many years, the history of Timbuctoo was ignored and forgotten, but now . . . their story is being reclaimed," said Bill Bolger, a National Park Service historian and manager of the National Historic Landmarks Program. "This is an important story for all Americans to appreciate."

Efforts to research the village and soldiers in the cemetery have been undertaken by historians, Temple University archaeology students, and volunteers at the once-thriving enclave, founded largely by escaped slaves.

The buried remains of numerous houses, a church, possibly a school, two roads, an alley, privies, and wells were found in a 2009 ground-penetrating radar survey. They are adjacent to a cemetery, the last resting place of many black Union soldiers. Scores of other villagers lie in graves without headstones because their families couldn't afford lasting memorials.

Timbuctoo's Civil War veterans included Sgt. William H. Sullivan, who fought at the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., in 1864; Pvt. Theophilus Pinion, who was seriously wounded and left with a pronounced limp; and Pvt. William Davis, who was wounded several times during the war.

The graves of Pvts. John Johnson, Edward B. Chapman, Ephraim Marshall, Charles Henry Love, Joseph Nolan, and Lewis B. Armstrong, who was an unofficial leader of the village, also have been located.

"No battles of the Civil War were ever fought in New Jersey, but I would contend this [Battle of Pine Swamp] is a prequel battle of the Civil War," said Paul W. Schopp, a professional historian who has exhaustively researched the incident and Timbuctoo's history. "It was fresh in their minds when they joined the Union army."

Many of the men left their small village of more than 125 people to train at a camp in Philadelphia.

"When they were given an opportunity to join the U.S. military, they joined enthusiastically," Bolger said. "A young man from Mount Holly who wants to defend the Union is more removed than somebody who just defended his neighbor from being captured.

"If you were in the U.S. Colored Troops, you were in the crosshairs," he said. "You were not offered the courtesies of war. If you were captured, you'd be killed."

From its founding in 1824 to 1861, "Timbuctoo served as a permanent haven for runaway slaves escaping from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia," said Schopp, who lives in Riverton.

"They traveled via clandestine routes - what would become known as the Underground Railroad - to reach Timbuctoo," he said. "With such a concentration of fugitives from enslavement, the residents endured all-too-frequent incursions by slave-catchers . . .."

Philadelphia slave-catcher George Alberti helped return more than 100 slaves to their Southern owners and planned to pick up Perry Simmons, Schopp said. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Alberti had the backing of the federal government to seize slaves as property.

"Tall, sinewy, and with a powerful frame, Alberti had a vise-like grip, steely eyes, and a heart of ice," Schopp said. "He occasionally engaged in outright kidnapping, beginning as early as 1815."

Alberti and Caleb Wright, a former Timbuctoo resident, left South Street in Philadelphia for the Burlington County village on Nov. 29 along with several other men, Schopp said. They rode in four coaches and picked up a local constable, telling him they planned to arrest Simmons for theft.

By about 11 p.m., the men spotted a road leading to Pine Swamp, an area of wetlands and pine groves, and soon reached their destination. Alberti rapped on the door.

"Who's there?" Simmons asked, according to accounts Schopp found.

"I have a warrant for the arrest of Perry Simmons for stealing chickens in Moorestown," Alberti said.

Simmons knew that story was false and told his family to retreat to the garret.

"You cannot fool Perry Simmons with such a story as that," he said.

The constable figured out he'd been duped and left. Alberti broke into the house and ordered Simmons to surrender.

"Never while I live!" Simmons said and threatened to shoot anyone who came up the steps.

Two pistols loaded with powder only were fired up the stairs to scare the fugitive, then Alberti headed up the steps and found himself staring into Simmons' gun barrel, Schopp said. He quickly retreated.

By morning, the 22-year-old son of the Quaker farmer who employed Simmons had investigated the commotion and alerted the residents of Timbuctoo, who came out in force - commanded by the community's leader, "King David" Parker - to drive off the slave-hunters without firing a shot, Schopp said.

"People don't know what you're talking about when you speak of Timbuctoo," said Mary Weston, 76, a retired English and history teacher who lives on a Timbuctoo lot that her great-great-great-grandfather John Bruere bought in 1829 for $30.

"I'm definitely proud, as an African American, of what happened here," she said. "I feel a sense of bringing life back to a community that appeared to have died."

The latest research "puts a different twist on history, different from what I learned in school," said Weston's son, Guy, 53, executive director of an HIV services organization in Washington and a former Timbuctoo resident. "I went to school in Willingboro and never learned about the cemetery in Timbuctoo."

The men buried there "were patriotic and wanted to preserve and advance their own freedom and self interest," he said.

Perry Simmons never joined the military and apparently never left Timbuctoo. He died in 1862 and is likely buried in the cemetery.

"Despite never having the opportunity to wear the uniform of the United States Colored Troops, Perry Simmons most assuredly stood on the front line in the battle to end slavery in the nation," Schopp said. "When the roll is called up yonder, Perry will assemble on Heaven's parade ground with his brothers in blue.

"On orders, he will dress right, and then gladly and proudly proclaim, 'Soldier Perry Simmons, ready for duty.' "


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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