What a historic sight it was to see the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, wearing masks and carrying signs, marching up Flatbush Avenue by 452 Dean Street in Brooklyn, on June 6, 2020, in this photo that Anna shot and sent me.
In 1860 at the age of 18, our ancestor Pierre Gentieu immigrated from Orthez, France to Brooklyn, staying with his aunt and uncle above their Darrigrand French bakery, at 452 Dean Street.
It took a while to realize that 452 Dean Street was right there on the corner of Flatbush, and, as we lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn and had a photo studio in Soho, we had been passing it every day on the way to work.
France had abolished slavery in 1792, long before Pierre was born. When he was growing up in France, his father read him installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“The story was published as a serial in the daily papers; and I remember how intent we were in the evening to hear our father read each installment, and all the remarks we were making about it—how it was possible that the country boasting of being ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ could legalize such an institution, when in France, which was not then a republic, would not tolerate such a thing; for to us children, all the people before God were equal, and the color of the skin had nothing to do with it; but it was only the degree of instruction and civilization that made the difference in people.”
from Pierre Gentieu's 1915 letter to his nephew explaining why he fought for the North in the Civil War
Here we are in 2020, at this historic moment, protesting police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. This is a meaningful photo for our family history. It’s an even more meaningful photo for our country’s history. This may be the first time there has ever been a demonstration near the corner of Flatbush and Dean St. This same protest is happening concurrently and in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of like-minded protesters in streets all over the country.
I know that Pierre would be so disheartened about what has gone on that has led to this, 155 years after the end of the Civil War. The hatred, the violence, the prejudice directed at black people in our nation is unacceptable. Pierre and our collective ancestors fought in the Civil War and sacrificed everything, so that all men women and children would be free.
I’m descended from two Civil War Yankee soldiers. Well, that is, one Yankee soldier, Pierre Gentieu, and Binie Weed, the sister of Yankee soldier Frank Weed, who was Pierre’s closest comrade in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and his tent mate. Had it not been for a split second decision made by my great great grandfather, enroute to Vicksburg as a Confederate soldier in April 1862, Pierre and Frank would never have met on such agreeable terms, Pierre would not have been introduced to Binie after the war, and there wouldn’t be me! I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to find out all I could about the inspiring story of courage that he left for us.
While researching my great great grandfather’s Civil War story in Louisiana, March, 2000, I met two very special Civil War historians, Chris Pena and Andrew Capone, who lived in the area of Pierre’s first battle, an hour up the river from New Orleans in Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux.
They gave us a tour of the area, showing us where Pierre’s camp was, where his first battle was. Later, they treated us to a delicious Louisana home cooked dinner of sauce piquant at Andrew and Judy’s house in Donaldsonville, the town where Pierre Gentieu took his stand.
I told them the story of how in 1861, Pierre initially signed up with a Louisiana militia, but ended up fighting in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
It was April 1862, and Colonel Theard of the New Orleans Guards was leading the militia to Vicksburg from Fort Livingston. Half way to Vicksburg, in the very town of Donaldsonville, he lined up his men and gave them a speech.
Colonel Theard told them of his orders to go to Vicksburg, but explained that he had no right to take them outside the state without their consent. He hoped they would go, but he didn’t want to force anyone. The Colonel then offered any man an opportunity to declare if they were against the cause of the Confederacy. If any man had any scruples about it, that man was free to step out of the ranks.
In Pierre’s own words, as he recalled the moment 50 years later in a letter to his nephew, Frank Weed’s son:
Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once. My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens—I stepped out the first one in my company with cries of coward from the rear.
There I stood for a few long moments until Albert Fest stepped out from the right of the company. A very tall man compared to me, he said, “Pierre, I am with you on this!” Then 30 German men stepped out soon after that. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying “None of that, men, it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done than to stay in the ranks;” and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all our equipments, taking only our personal property—-that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—-we could get there the best way possible—-that we were free; and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.
Back in New Orleans, the trip of which was not without adventure, Pierre signed up with the 13th Connecticut. One reason he chose that regiment was that the great looking uniforms appealed to his sense of style, with the dark blue trousers and polished brass buttons. He survived nine battles.
After dinner, Andrew took us into his workroom. He excavated battle grounds, including the site of Pierre’s first battle as a Union soldier. Andrew looked through the baggies of bullets, then handed me a bullet covered in white rust and dust, saying, it was Pierre’s bullet. Pierre dropped it during his first battle. The bullet never hurt anyone, Andrew pointed out, and it was mine now because Pierre wanted me to have it.
I gladly accepted the bullet for all of its poetry and brought it back up north. I arranged it in my studio along with some toy soldiers that I bought in New Orleans, one to represent each of five generations, and a broken brick Chris and Andrew gave me from the ruins of Fort Butler, and some Spanish moss.
The soldiers were slightly precarious on the brick, because some mornings I would come in to find that the soldiers had fallen on the floor or into the Spanish moss, from the vibrations of the Six train that ran through the basement of the Lafayette St. building. But never Pierre, and never the bullet.
Many Springfield Twp. Farms Became Part of the City Zanesville Sunday Times Signal, Sept. 28, 1958
Dinner at my grandparents, Sherwood and Helen Pinkerton’s house on Richmond Road in Toledo, Ohio, 1954. Baby is me. Woman on left is Aunt Elise Pinkerton Stewart. (see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.) Paintings of Anna and Alvah Buckingham on the wall.
I never thought of my ancestors as being activists by looking at these two in the paintings that I grew up with in my grandparents dining room. But now I see them in an entirely different way! They came from fierce New England Puritan stock who believed that the laws of God trumped the law of the land that allowed slavery. Putnam was a small village across the river from Zanesville Ohio, and my New England ancestors were among the original settlers. Zanesville, on the other hand, was settled by folks from Kentucky and West Virginia. And there were fights.
My ancestors’ names are Alvah and Anna Buckingham. Alvah helped build the Putnam Presbyterian Church in 1835, which was actively involved in the abolitionist movement. William Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first minister of the church. Frederick Douglass spoke there in 1852. For many years, the church held a monthly prayer service for the abolition of slavery. The first Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention took place in Putnam, as well as the first publication of the abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist. What a great community!
In 1799, when Alvah Buckingham was 8, his family moved to southeast Ohio, on horseback. In 1819 Alvah met Anna Hale of Glastonbury, Connecticut on a trip back east and married her. They built a house on Moxahala Avenue in 1821. (Three generations have subsequently lived in the house.) He was in the mercantile business with his brother and brother-in-law and later, opened a lumber trade. In 1852, he built the first grain elevator in Chicago, and owned the first grain elevator in Toledo.
In 1865 when Alvah was 74, he and Anna moved to New York City to be closer to their two daughters who also lived in New York City. They owned a home at 13 East 12th St.
In 1866, Alvah took a trip out west with his youngest son, James in a spring wagon over rough roads, “without any apparent fatigue.” (James is my GG Grandfather and grandfather of Elise Pinkerton, born 1904, see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.)
Anna Buckingham died of pneumonia on September 23, 1867, and her remains were brought back to Ohio. Alvah Buckingham died 11 days later, on October 4, 1867.
In 1639, Alvah Buckingham’s Puritan ancestors settled the farthest most reaches of America – Milford, Connecticut. Alvah was descended from immigrant ancestor, Thomas Buckingham, born in Minsden, Herts, England. Alvah’s father, Ebenezer Buckingham, fought in the Revolutionary War.
My grandfather, Sherwood Pinkerton Jr. later to be president of the family business, The Pinkerton Tobacco Company in Toledo, Ohio, is sitting in lower right corner. His mother, Julia Buckingham Pinkerton is standing behind him, next to her father, James Buckingham. James’ wife, Jane Wills Buckingham is in the center. The room they are in is the front right side of the 405 Moxahala Avenue house, shown above. Photo circa 1905.
Sherwood Pinkerton with the paintings of his great grandparents, in his Central Avenue apartment in Toledo, November 1979, six weeks before he passed away.