Posted by: sailerd
(Essay written by Frank Hebblethwaite — Park Ranger, Hopewell Furnace NHS)
Abraham Lincoln referred to history as the “mystic chords of memory”. Those mystic chords of collective memory bind us together. Our common history connects us to each other in the present and to our ancestors in the past. It is a privilege to encounter those among us who instinctively recognize the importance of understanding and sharing their connections with the past in order to gain a fuller appreciation of who we are in the present.
Members of one family who have gained such an understanding of their past and have generously shared it with others are descendants of Isaac Cole, who enlisted in the Union Army in Reading, Pennsylvania on February 20, 1864 at the age of 40. The Mt. Frisby African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery, where Isaac Cole is buried, is located on property that has been in the Cole family since the middle of the 19th century. John Cole, Isaac’s great-grandson, and his wife Barbara, who are the current owners of the property, have graciously allowed historians, park rangers, and other researchers to visit Isaac Cole’s burial site and to examine the words and dates chiseled on his government-issued headstone. They have also participated in numerous interviews so others might learn about their family history.
While little is known of Isaac Cole’s life prior to his enlistment into the Union Army, his military and census records have left us with a good deal of information about his life after he reported for duty to Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, where he was mustered into Company H, 32nd Regiment, United States Colored Troops.
The 32nd Regiment was ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina in April 1864 and remained on duty there until June of the same year. The regiment then moved to Morris Island, South Carolina, where they operated against Charleston. Between the end of November 1864 and the middle of February 1865, the men of the 32nd Regiment participated in an expedition to Boyd’s Neck, demonstrations on Charleston Camp, Savannah Railroad, Devaux’s Neck, and James Island, and the Battle of Honey Hill. After occupying Charleston from late February to the middle of April 1865, they took part in Potter’s Expedition, along with expeditions to Dingles’s Mills and Statesboro. Toward the end of April, the 32nd Regiment occupied Camden, Boydkin’s Mills, Beach Creek, and Denken’s Mills in rapid succession. The regiment then performed garrison duty at Charleston, Beaufort, and Hilton head, South Carolina until the middle of August. The 32nd Regiment was mustered out on August 22, 1865.
Isaac Cole’s application for an invalid pension, based on a foot injury he suffered while in camp in South Carolina, was rejected in 1887. Shortly after Isaac’s death in 1889, his widow, Annie, reapplied for his invalid pension, but was also rejected. She did, however, receive a regular widow’s pension until her death on December 25, 1909.
There are a number of questions about Isaac Cole’s past that remain unanswered. Where was Isaac Cole born? The 1860 census lists Isaac Cole’s place of birth as Pennsylvania. In the 1870 census he is listed as having been born in Maryland. The 1880 census once again lists his place of birth as Pennsylvania. However, his enlistment papers from February 20, 1864 indicate that he was born in “Hofford” (probably a misspelling of Harford) County, Maryland. Was he a runaway slave seeking his freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line or was he a free black who took advantage of one of the most intrinsic of American values – “the right to rise” – and improve his fortunes by relocating to Pennsylvania and working for Hopewell Furnace. (A charcoal-burning iron furnace, 35 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, with thousands of acres of wooded land, was an ideal location for a freedom-seeker to hide while earning a bit of money to continue his journey north.) If Isaac Cole was from Maryland, when did he come to Pennsylvania?
When and why did Isaac Cole move from the land he originally occupied south of Six Penny Creek to the current Cole property which includes Mt. Frisby Church? Although family tradition and the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site African American History site bulletin maintain that Isaac Cole donated the land for Mt. Frisby AME Church in 1856, maps of Berks County, Pennsylvania for 1860 and 1876 indicate otherwise. Neither map shows Isaac Cole as the owner of the land where Mt. Frisby AME Church was built, which is currently occupied by his descendants. Instead, his land is shown somewhat south of the current Cole property. Did Cole serve as a substitute during the Civil War for one of his white neighbors (as one oral tradition maintains)? Could this be how he obtained the capital to buy the land that has been passed down to his descendants?
Despite the shutdown of Hopewell Furnace in 1883, the emergence of French Creek State Park and Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in the first half of the 20th century, and the pressure of local development (which has greatly intensified in the last two decades), those descendants have succeeded in maintaining ownership of the land that Isaac Cole purchased more than 150 years ago. The pride felt by present-day members of the Cole family in their history and how it connects them to their past has motivated them to carefully restore and maintain the Mt. Frisby AME Church Cemetery and to share their history with the rest of us. (Please remember, however, that Isaac Cole’s grave is located on private property and is not accessible to the public.) Persons interested in seeing where Isaac Cole worked are welcome to visit Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. For information and directions, please go to the park’s website at www.nps.gov/hofu.
Thanks to the Cole family’s understanding of the importance of history and the role their ancestor played in it, we can all be grateful that the mystic chords of memory that connect us to Isaac Cole are still strong and vibrant.