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Home : News
NEWS | June 21, 2024

CTNG helps unveil burial marker for Civil War Soldier, parents’ refurbished gravestone

By Timothy Koster

The Connecticut National Guard funeral honors team assisted with the unveiling of a new burial marker for Pvt. Stephen Newton, a soldier assigned to the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment during a celebration of life event for the Newton family at the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut June 21, 2024.

The ceremony was the culmination of a restoration and research project by John Mills, the founder of the Alex Breanne Corporation, which also unveiled the restored grave marker of Newton’s parents, Thaddeus, a former slave, and Mary, a free woman, who worked with prominent abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher and Henry Highland Garnet to secure the funds needed to purchase the freedom of Thaddeus and many other enslaved families in the South.

“The story of Mary and Thaddeus Newton is a love story,” said Mills. “One that began with their marriage on Valentine’s Day in 1837; a love that was strong enough that Mary found a way to free her husband. Theirs was a love story of family and of country. Three of their sons serving during the Civil War in the fight for freedom, one dying for it.”

Continuing their mother’s quest to help free slaves from captivity, three of her sons enlisted in the Union army following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, when it was declared that colored men could serve in the military.

Private Newton enlisted in the militia on April 18, 1863, and was assigned to the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, the second all-black regiment mustered in the Union, which was famously depicted in the 1989 movie, Glory.

On July 18th of that year, the 54th engaged in the battle for Fort Wagner on Morris Island, Charleston, South Carolina. Despite outnumbering the Confederate military by more than 3,000 men, and successfully scaling the fort’s parapets, the 54th, led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, failed to capture the fort after suffering significant losses from Confederate artillery.

One of those losses was Pvt. Stephen Newton.

“On July 18, 1863, Stephen would die on the assault of Fort Wagner,” said Mills. “His body would be buried in a mass grave at the side of the battle, his remains never appropriately identified, therefore never returning home to Connecticut.”

Follow Stephen’s death, his brother Alexander enlisted in the 29th Connecticut Colored Regiment, the first all-black regiment of the Nutmeg state and famous for being the first Union regiment to enter the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia following its sack on April 3, 1865. He brought his younger brother William along with him, who served as a servant to the B Company commander, Captain Charles Griswold.

“The Newton story is an American story,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It is an American story about freedom fighters, and it continues today. The men and women in uniform today have raised their right hand with allegiance not to a government, not to a president, but to the Constitution of the United States that now has an amendment that prohibits slavery.”

Also in attendance was Angela Leavy, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Mary and Thaddeus, who said in an interview with WSHU that she was surprised to see so many people in attendance to honor and remember her ancestors.

“I’m still taking it all in,” Leavy said. “It’s been a blessing. The story is something I can share with my children and grandchildren. I have history to pass on.”

For many people in attendance, this was the first time they’d heard of the Newton family, despite their significant impact on the city of New Haven and the country. In addition to Stephen and Alexander’s wartime service, and Mary’s abolitionist efforts, Thaddeus would also make significant contributions to the city, despite suffering from a terminal case of tuberculosis.

“The reason [this event is] important is not just because of their individual stories, but because of the symbolism behind their stories,” said New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker. “Because there are so many other people that we don’t know about that walked a similar path.”

Thaddeus became a trustee for the First Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and worked diligently to secure the funds needed to purchase a plot of land for the house of worship—a building which still stands today. Following the war, Alexander would follow in his father’s devotion to his faith and become an official of that same church.

Thaddeus would succumb to his illness on March 15, 1868, having experienced less than 10 years of freedom. Mary would pass away in 1904 after being severely burned by a kettle of boiling water. Knowing her demise was imminent, she proceeded to plan her own funeral, set aside money for the services, selected her casket, made her own burial shroud, and selected the plot for her to be buried alongside her husband.

Several years ago, the gravestone of Mary and Thaddeus Newton toppled over and cracked. It was also slowly being reclaimed by the Earth, threatened to be lost forever, when Mills took on the task of uncovering the family’s story.

As part of his efforts to investigate the lives of the Newton family, his non-profit paid for the restoration of the gravestone. And because Stephen’s remains were never recovered following the war, he was never given a proper headstone, so he worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to have one installed next to his parents.

The Newton family plot at Evergreen Cemetery has also been added as an official location along the Connecticut Freedom Trail, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the stories of freedom and dignity of the Black and African communities in the state.