Monday, November 23, 2009

Civil War re-enactors honor Buffalonian

Union Army captain had commanded a unit of black troops in battle against Confederate soldiers
By Michael Beebe

Under a fittingly somber gray sky, Civil War re-enactors from the Union Army marched in formation through Forest Lawn on Saturday, as they honored a Buffalo captain who commanded a unit of the United States Colored Troops.

They honored Capt. Philip J. Weber, who like his younger, better known brother Col. John B. Weber, was a white man in charge of black troops. But that did not bother Luther Burnette, a black man who attended the ceremony.

"Because of what they did," Burnette said of the Weber brothers, who volunteered to lead the black troops, "I could retire as a colonel."

Burnette, who served in the Army during World War II and the Korean conflict and retired after finishing his service in the Army Reserve, represented the Bennett Wells American Legion Post 1780, made up of African-American veterans.

The ceremony Saturday was part of a nationwide Remembrance Day, established by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to mark the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in November 1863.

David C. Kreutz, with his beard, top hat and long coat, a realistic-looking Lincoln re-enactor from Depew, delivered the world's most famous two-minute speech at Capt. Weber's grave site.

"Four score and seven years ago," Kreutz began, "our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The Weber brothers took that sentiment to heart, first enlisting as Union soldiers and then, after their commissioning as officers, in leading what was called the United States Colored Troops into battle against the Confederate Army in Louisiana.

Philip Weber, whose headstone was rededicated Saturday with wreaths and a marker, was the older brother of John Weber, and rose through the ranks to become captain of the 89th United States Colored Troops.

After the war, the two brothers returned to Buffalo, where Philip Weber died Aug. 5, 1879, at the age of 41.

His brother John's career took off after the war, when he served as the youngest colonel — promoted two days before his 21st birthday — in the Union Army.

John Weber lost a close election for Erie County sheriff to Grover Cleveland. But after Cleveland left Buffalo on his way to the presidency, Weber ran again and became the county's youngest sheriff at age 31.

William Tojek, a Lackawanna firefighter and bugler for the Col. John B. Weber Camp 44 of the Sons of Union Veterans, which led Saturday's ceremony, takes up the story from there.

John Weber became a congressman, was the country's first commissioner of Immigration, and built and opened Ellis Island, said Tojek, who has served as the city of Lackawanna's historian.

Weber helped bring Bethlehem Steel to Western New York, helped form the city of Lackawanna, established South Park, Cazenovia Park and the Botanical Gardens, and forced the railroads to build bridges over railroads in the City of Buffalo, eliminating dangerous street crossings.

But it was the Weber brothers' service during the Civil War that brought the two dozen men in their blue Grand Army of the Republic uniforms to Forest Lawn on Saturday — as well as retired Col. Burnette, and his wife, Georgia — to honor two men from Buffalo who chose to lead black men in their fight against slavery.

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