Open W-F, 12-4pm, Sat 10am-2pm | (860) 364-5688

Open W-F, 12-4pm, Sat 10am-2pm | (860) 364-5688

“Free At Last”

By Myra Plescia, SHS Interim Curator & Registrar | Fall/Winter 2022

While helping clean gravestones at the Hillside Cemetery in Sharon, I was told that a freed slave, Henry Holmes, was buried at Hillside Cemetery. I was immediately intrigued. How did a freed slave come to be in Sharon? I turned to Lawrence Van Alstyne’s book, Burying Grounds, in hopes of finding more information. Most entries in the book are short and to the point, name, birth and death dates, and perhaps a brief epitaph. Reading through Burying Grounds, Henry Holmes’ entry stands out. He is the only person in the book having a personal note from Van Alstyne,

‘Henry Holmes was probably 70 years old at the time of his death. He was born a slave and remained so until freed by the ‘Civil War.’ He was last owned by a cotton planter in Louisiana from whom he took
his name. He came north in the winter of 1864-5 and lived nearly all his life in Sharon. He was a Methodist and was buried from that church. The ministers from both the other churches attended and requested the privilege of taking part in the services. They each in their turn gave testimony to the help and encouragement they had received from the words and example of this good old man. He was entirely self-supporting and, at his death, it was found he laid by a sum sufficient to defray the expenses of his burial and to pay for the enduring monument which marks his grave in Hillside Cemetery.’

Van Alstyne’s words mainly explained Henry’s end, but still did not answer how Henry came to be in Sharon, CT. What was the beginning of Henry’s story? What was Henry’s relationship with Lawrence Van Alstyne that inspired him to write such a personal note?

Sharon Voting List showing Henry Holmes voted.

Van Alstyne himself provides most of the information to answer these questions in his book, Diary of an Enlisted Man, in which Van Alstyne recounts his Civil War experiences. Although we think of Van Alstyne as a Sharon resident, he grew up in Amenia, NY. When the Civil War broke out, he and fellow Amenia resident, George Gorton (? Gordon), enlisted in the 128th Infantry Regiment, Company B. In 1863, both Van Alstyne and Gorton were transferred to the 90th United States Colored Infantry, also known as the Corps d’Afrique and were stationed in New Orleans. One of their main duties was to recruit freed African American slaves to serve in the Union Army. It was here that Van Alstyne and Henry Holmes met. Holmes was part of a group of freed slaves who made the 90-mile trek from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in hopes of joining ‘Mr. Lincoln’s Army.’ Unfortunately, Henry was declared unfit for duty due to having a limp. Van Alstyne and tent mate George Gorton asked Holmes to come work for them doing cooking, cleaning, and general chores around camp – Henry accepted.

As time went on, Henry expressed a strong desire to go north. Both George Gorton and Van Alstyne agreed that whoever got leave first, would take Henry with them. Their plan was that Henry would live with Gorton’s family in Amenia to help Gorton’s wife while he was away serving in the army. In early 1864, Van Alstyne was granted leave and, with Henry, boarded a steamer to New York City. At one point, Henry and Lt. Larry were separated and Holmes ended up in Albany. After a journey fraught with misdirection and misadventure, Henry was eventually rescued by John Loucks, Van Alstyne’s brother-in-law, in upstate New York. They made their way back to Amenia where Holmes most likely stayed with the Gorton family until the end of the war.

Thanks to Van Alstyne, I knew how Henry came to be in Amenia, but not in Sharon. The 1870 Census records show that the Gorton family moved to Poughkeepsie after the war, and it seems that Holmes
chose not to go with them. However, I could not find Henry Holmes on the 1870 census records for Sharon
or Amenia. Henry does appear in the 1880 census for Sharon and his occupation was a laborer. Charles Sedgewick (42 Upper Main Street) is listed on the line below Henry Holmes, which would indicate that Henry probably lived in the Upper Main Street as well. The census records established that Henry was indeed a Sharon resident, but still left me thinking that he had moved to Sharon before 1880.

My theory was that Henry followed Lawrence Van Alstyne to Sharon, so I began searching the property records hoping to find information on both men. The property records show that Lawrence Van Alstyne bought land and a house in Sharon in the early 1870’s. Did Henry follow Lt. Larry to Sharon? I could not find Henry Holmes on any property records, so it does not appear that he had his own home, perhaps he rented a room or was a boarder on Upper Main Street.

The only other source that might document Henry’s earlier presence in Sharon would be the voting records for the 1870s. I started looking through the Sharon voting lists in the archives hoping that I could document that Henry Holmes was indeed a Sharon resident in the 1870’s. After searching through the
1874 voters registry, I found Henry Holmes name, proving that he was a Sharon resident and a registered
voter. I can only imagine how proud he was to have the right to vote. Lawrence Van Alstyne’s house was at 73 Main Street, next to what is now WHDD radio, and not very far from where Henry probably lived. I like to think that that the two men maintained a friendship through their years in Sharon. If you have a chance, visit Henry’s grave at Hillside Cemetery. He chose an enduring granite monument and his epitaph simply “Free At Last.”

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