Sgt. Cornelius Peck, a black Civil War veteran who resettled in Sacramento, was honored Friday at his humble grave in the Historic City Cemetery, exactly 150 years after the last slaves were freed on June 19, 1865, a date celebrated as Juneteenth.
Genealogist Karen Burney organized Friday’s memorial because her great-great-grandparents, Isaac and Jane Brayboy Jefferson, were among more than 250,000 slaves in Texas and Louisiana liberated by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, 21/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Because of the service of Sgt. Cornelius Peck and those who fought to end slavery in America, they were freed in 1865,” Burney said. “Their descendants accomplished things that slaves only dreamed of such as obtaining education to become lawyers, law enforcement officers, executives, educators and other lucrative careers.”
Burney called Peck – a free person of color descended from a white indentured female servant and a black slave – a true freedom fighter who put his life on the line. “I feel I and all Americans owe a lot to Mr. Peck and men like him whose sacrifice made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we now have today,” said Burney, who periodically stops by his grave to place a flower or a small American flag.
On Friday, she was joined by a color guard, several African American leaders and a handful of descendants of Civil War veterans.
“I had 22 relatives who fought in the Civil War – three didn’t come out,” said Brad Shaw, 76, of Lincoln, clad in the blue Union uniform belonging to his great-uncle, Capt. Absolum Shaw, who was wounded three times.
Shaw has helped dedicate graves of other black Civil War veterans. He said Peck, who served in the U.S. Colored Troops, 1st Regiment, Company F, was among the 187,000 black soldiers who served in the Union Army from 1863 to the war’s end in 1865.
“When black and white troops fought side by side to get rid of slavery, everyone knew what they were fighting for,” said Shaw, past commander in chief of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Peck, who enlisted with his brother, William, at Mason’s Island, Va., was quickly promoted to sergeant, “putting him in the top 2 percent of black troops,” Shaw said. “The men in his unit would have voted him in as sergeant because he was the best and brightest.”
Peck spent part of the war recovering from an unknown illness. He returned to the battlefield in 1864, only to see his brother wounded in action in the nine-month siege of Petersburg, Va.
“It was a horrible battle in the early days of trench warfare that ultimately broke the Confederacy, and U.S. Colored Troops were on the front lines,” Shaw said of the Petersburg siege.
Peck and his family moved to Sacramento where he bought a home on P Street, joined St. Andrews AME Church and served as a porter in the California Assembly, Burney said. He died at age 63 in 1897 and is one of only about a dozen African Americans buried in the Historic City Cemetery, she noted.
His gravestone is faded, but “1st U.S.C.T.” is visible. Buried next to him is his nephew, Ernest Houston Johnson, the first African American to graduate from Stanford University in 1895. Friday morning, 25 American flags were staked around Peck’s grave, along with a bouquet of roses and carnations.
It’s only fitting that Peck, “a true, unsung American hero,” be honored on the anniversary of Juneteenth “which has come to symbolize for many African Americans what the Fourth of July means to all Americans: freedom,” said Burney’s brother, Rev. Dale Burney, in his opening prayer. “The inhumane massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, this week reminds us once again that not all men are free, particularly from the bondage of sin.”
About 20 well-wishers heard Karen Massie Withrow sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The California Honor Guard presented Burney with a flag in Peck’s honor, and red, white and blue balloons were released to the heavens.
Michael Drouin, a retired U.S. Marines lieutenant colonel from Lodi clad in a Civil War uniform, began sobbing as Army National Guardsman Keanu Peterson of Elk Grove played taps in Peck’s honor.
“My great-great-great-grandfather served in the Union Army,” Drouin said. “The average American has no clue what Juneteenth is all about, and there’s a possibility it could be lost” if events like Friday’s don’t keep it alive.