The Hamilton Spectator
Remembering two Black Civil War veterans
Their unmarked graves finally received military gravestones after more than a century
This month, a section of James Street North features an eye-catching series of banners honouring 16 Black Hamiltonians as part of the “We are Hamilton — Black History Remembered” initiative.
The images do a great job of remembering community leaders, educators, coaches, business owners and activists who played an important role in the city’s history. It’s part of a larger project that includes displays at some civic buildings and Hamilton Public Library branches.
But I recently learned about another notable Black history story connected to James Street, not far from where the banners are displayed from lampposts. It relates to a man named Andrew Provost (sometimes spelled Provow) who lived from 1848-1898.
He had a barber shop at 68 James Street North for several years in the late 19th century, and prior to moving to Hamilton, he was a soldier with the Union Army during the Civil War as part of the 38th United States Colored Infantry regiment.
According to military records obtained by his family, he enlisted on March 3, 1865, a little more than a month before the war ended on April 9, 1865. An autobiography that Provost wrote for his family and friends described witnessing the fall of Richmond, Virginia and seeing Confederate General Robert E. Lee following the surrender as well as President Abraham Lincoln on the deck of a boat.
Provost’s name — spelled Provow — is included on a Wall of Honour near a United States Colored Troops Memorial Statue in Washington D.C.
After serving in the Union Army, he transferred to the U.S. Navy for a few years. As a civilian back in Canada, he became a methodist minister, moving to Hamilton in around 1880 from the Aurora area. He became a senior officer with the Salvation Army in the city and was frequently quoted in Hamilton newspapers about his work with the organization. After he died in April 1898, his funeral was described as one of the largest in memory.
“The body then lay in state till all who wished had a last look at it. The procession was formed on Hughson Street and proceeded to King William Street, to York Street, thence to Hamilton Cemetery. Thousands of persons lined the streets,” wrote the Hamilton Evening Times.
A Salvation Army publication “The War Cry” said it was “such a funeral as is seldom seen … the march to the cemetery was witnessed by such a large concourse of people that one estimate placed it at half the population, another from ten to fifteen thousand.”
Yet, inexplicably, his grave at Hamilton Cemetery had no gravestone.
Provost’s great granddaughter Faye Skean, of Thunder Bay, said she, “approached the cemetery to ask if someone could take a picture of the headstone. A lot of cemeteries are very good about doing that. They were, too. But the message came back that the grave was unmarked,” she said.
Skean couldn’t believe it. How could someone who received such a moving send off in the city be so forgotten about after he was buried?
She vowed to do something about it.
Around that time, she heard a podcast about Hamilton Cemetery tour guide Robin McKee’s success- ful 2007 effort to have a stone from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs placed on the grave of a Black Civil War vet named Nelson Stevens.
McKee came to learn about Stevens (1832-1890) while researching Civil War veterans more broadly. In Stevens’ case, he came north to Canada to escape slavery before the war. He settled in Hamilton and then enlisted for the Union Army in 25th United States Colored Troops seeing active service in Florida.
After the war, he returned to Hamilton and worked as a tobacconist. He married in 1866. But in his final years, he apparently ended up in poverty and alone after his wife and two daughters departed the city to live in Toronto. Stevens was buried in a pauper’s grave that overlooks Cootes Paradise.
McKee travelled to Washington, D.C. to find military records of Stevens. And after the gravestone arrived in the summer of 2007, a ceremony was held at Stevens’ grave to officially unveil it.
In the case of Provost’s stone — that arrived in June 2015, a few months after Skean applied for it — there was no ceremony because family members lived so far away.
But just before the pandemic began, Skean and her family made the journey from Thunder Bay, and she was pleased by what she saw.
“I was very moved. It was emotional and I was proud of myself for taking it on,” she said. “He did a lot of good right up to the day he died and I’m glad the gravestone will help his name be remembered.”
An estimated 50,000 people from British North America fought in the American Civil War. And many were Black and often former slaves who had previously escaped from the U.S.
McKee says he knows of nearly 30 Civil War veterans buried at Hamilton Cemetery, three of whom are known to be Black. In addition to Stevens and Provost, he says former slave Thomas J. Holland served with the First Michigan USCT.
He returned to Hamilton following the war where he lived the rest of his life. His grave carries a stone that was put there by his family, McKee says. Holland was father to Rev. John Holland a well-known former pastor at Stewart Memorial Church.