By Jim Brumm
WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - Hundreds of African-American Union soldiers buried in the National Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina, after the Civil War were honored Thursday with a state highway historical marker.
Many of the "United States Colored Troops," as they were known in the 1860s, died in the final months of the war when federal troops closed the Confederacy's last port with the capture of Fort Fisher about 15 miles south of the city.
Thousands of Union soldiers who died in the assault on Fort Fisher and the Wilmington campaign were reburied in unmarked graves in the cemetery when it opened in 1867.
The dedication Thursday also honored Fred Johnson, a local Civil War re-enactor who has researched the story of the black soldiers buried in Wilmington and pushed for them to be recognized.
A Philadelphia native and an Army Sergeant during the Korean War who retired to Wilmington in the 1990s, Johnson became interested in the Civil War through studying his family history.
Johnson said his great-great grandfather, Peter Quomony, served in the U.S. Colored Troops from 1863 to 1865. Another ancestor who died in the war is buried in an unmarked grave at the New Bern National Cemetery.
Civil War historian Chris Fonvielle said the historical marker deserved to be erected, pointing out some 3,300 African-American soldiers in two brigades served in the Cape Fear region.
He said many of the Colored Troops were North Carolinians and ex-slaves, and one of their regiments, the 37th, included men from the Wilmington area.
The troops served as occupation forces in the area after the war, and many stayed on after their discharges.
"Postwar Wilmington was a mecca for African-Americans," said Fonvielle, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Many of these resident veterans were buried at the National Cemetery well into the 1900s.
Records identified 92 U.S. Colored Troops buried at Wilmington National Cemetery. But further research by Bill Jayne, former cemetery development director with the National Cemetery Administration, indicated that many more bodies were moved to the cemetery between 1867 and 1882 -- perhaps as many as 500 in all.
That is the number noted on the marker. It reads: "United States Colored Troops. Black soldiers and white officers in the Union Army 1863-1865. About 500 involved in the Wilmington campaign buried here."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)