Emily Morrison, my grandmother, revered her dead brother, Johnny Sanders. So much so that in her later years, when speaking about her own death, she insisted that she be buried next to him. She seemed comforted by the very idea. As a young boy, I spend the summers with my grandmother in South Carolina,whom I always referred to as Mama, after my family fled to New York City in 1946. I knew all of my grandmother’s siblings except two, a brother who lived in Charleston and Johnny Sanders, the mysterious object of her admiration, in the graveyard at Annivesta Baptist Church, an eighth of a mile from her home.
I don’t remember her ever expressing anything specific about her brother’s life that would have explained her reverence for him, only that her affection for him was so powerful that it was transmitted to me. In a long-forgotten corner of her den stood an old Civil War rifle and a rusty sword that once belonged to him. That rifle and sword stayed in that corner for so long that they came to be regarded as part of the décor. To most family members, they were useless relics of the past, but Mama Dolly held on to them because for her, they were a link to her beloved brother.
We visited my grandmother in the summer of 1972. By then, I had married a girl I met on the day Kennedy was shot and we had three sons. The day before we were to return to New York, I told Mama of my plans to visit with her the following summer. I would have to return far sooner, she replied, in a clairvoyant moment. That night she died.
Mama’s two daughters lived in New York City, and her two sons lived near her, so upon her death, her sons and their families took charge of her possessions including the Civil War rifle and the sword. At divvy-up time, there was confusion about what was where. I didn’t care about the other things; I expressed my desire to have the old rifle and sword from that long-forgotten corner if they were ever found.
A few years after Mama’s death, I received the sword, and an explanation that the rifle had been destroyed. I cried for the loss of the rifle and the survival of the sword. I spent hours cleaning the sword and applied a light coat of oil to it. I shined the guard until it was clean and the number 41 could be clearly read. Then I hung the sword in the most conspicuous spot on our living room wall. I felt that my grand-uncle’s story and the reason for my grandmother’s reverence for him lay within the history of this sword. Now my quest was to find out all I could about the sword.
I started by calling a local military supply unit and spoke with a person utterly astonished by my questions about an ancient sword. After he satisfied himself that I was sane, his curiosity was engaged and he cheerfully became part of the process by directing me to the Smithsonian Institute. I found out that the sword was a Union Army Medical Staff sword worn by medical officers of the Union Army during the Civil War. This particular sword was made in 1860, but there were no records of who was issued number 41. I had hoped to find a name and then attempt to trace the sword to Johnny Sanders.
Years later, in a conversation with an aunt who remembers visiting with her Uncle Johnny Sanders and his wife in Brunswick, Georgia when she was a little girl, I found out that he was a soldier and fought in the Spanish-American War. They didn’t have children, so in the summers, his nieces would spend time with them.
The military was segregated then. I needed to find out which black regiments were assigned duty in Cuba. A book I read on the rise of Theodore Roosevelt has a picture of a troop of black volunteer soldiers in Florida. Further research revealed that four black regiments were among the first units ordered to Cuba. The army only totaled 26,000 men back then. The most experienced combat troops were the men who had served out West during the Indian Wars. Some 3,000 black soldiers comprised the four black regiments of combat-experienced troops shipped to a staging area near Tampa, equipped with weapons from the Civil War. These units were called “immune” troops under the mistaken belief that blacks would not contract the tropical diseases that plagued the white troops in Cuba. This notion led to the recruitment of other black volunteers. Nineteen-year-old Johnny Sanders was among this group.
These adventuresome black men used the military to avoid the overt racism experienced by the general black population. They thought that their glorious and victorious performance during the Indian Wars would win them equitable treatment and had no hesitation in joining the Cuban expedition. I found the roster of the nine companies of the Ninth United States Volunteer Infantry listed on a Spanish-American War website. I searched the list of 984 men. Private Johnny Sanders, my grand-uncle, was listed in company “M” of the Ninth Regiment.
This was how I found out why my grandmother, who wanted to be buried next to her brother, had admired him so much. He was a soldier and a man of honor among men of honor, and he must have embodied the best of the company he kept.