By William Sweet

Robert Romer ’52 knows what an odd thing it is to be a historian. It may lead you to stroll in a cemetery, looking for people you never knew, as if they were old friends. In Romer’s case, a cemetery stroll inspired him to correct an inadvertent slight against some black soldiers from the Town of Amherst who fought in the Civil War.

“I happened to be walking through West Cemetery on the day before Memorial Day in 2011,” says Romer, professor emeritus of physics, “and I was looking forward to seeing flags next to the graves of the town’s black Civil War veterans.” Surprised to find no flags, he bought some at A.J. Hastings and returned to mark the graves.

Now that he’s brought attention to local African Americans who served in the Civil War,
Professor Romer is researching students and alumni who were white officers in black
Union regiments.

The Amherst cemetery is the final resting place of at least five black men who fought for the Union: Charles Finnemore, of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; Genalvin Marse, of the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment; Christopher Thompson and his son Charles, both of the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry; and John Thompson, also of the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry. Marse and Charles Thompson were janitors at Amherst.

Romer is quick to point out that the town, in forgetting to place the flags, made an innocent, unintentional mistake. But he was not content with merely fixing the oversight; he set out to bring greater attention to the 20 black men from Amherst who served the Union. He met with the local veterans’ agent to make sure the graves will not be overlooked again. He also installed a temporary marker next to the hitherto unmarked grave of one of the soldiers, and the town has renewed an effort to identify the unmarked graves of other black soldiers who may be buried in the cemetery. Together with town officials, he organized a memorial ceremony last fall that drew many descendants of the town’s black soldiers.

Romer’s effort to honor the soldiers, which helped earn him a 2012 Conch Shell Award from the Amherst Historical Society, is just one phase of a journey that started more than a decade ago, when he learned that early residents of the Pioneer Valley owned slaves. (The Summer 2010 Amherst magazine includes a review of his 2009 book, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts.)

And Romer is not done with the Civil War. He is now delving into the Amherst College archives to learn about students and alumni (he’s found 23 so far) who were white officers in black regiments, in the fashion of Harvard’s Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the Massachusetts 54th, portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film Glory.

“With almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors [in the Union Army and Navy], that would mean about 9,000
officers,” Romer says, “and they couldn’t all have gone to Harvard.”

Photo by Rob Mattson