MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (AP) - As one of Riverside Cemetery’s 22,000 buried souls, Josiah French’s life story is long-forgotten to Marshalltown’s inhabitants, but just enough documentation exists to help bring to light the legacy of a man who was born a slave, followed his master to the front lines of the Mexican-American War, escaped slavery and served in the Civil War, and made his way to Iowa. At the time of his death on Jan. 1, 1892, the Times-Republican (https://bit.ly/1rXjGHl ) remembered French as a prominent Marshalltonian, buried alongside fellow veterans, honored for his military service despite the mysteries that surround his life.
According to his obituary, French was born into slavery in Mississippi. For the duration of the Mexican-American War (spring 1846-fall 1847), French stood at the front of the war, as a servant to his master, Colonel West.
“Mr. French has long been a resident of this city, coming here soon after the war, and his small shaped figure was well known upon our streets. How old he was no one knew; he did not know himself,” the T-R reported. “His age was put at 70 years, but many believed from his appearance and his memory of events that he was nearer 90.”
According to historian and Riverside Cemetery volunteer Jerry McCann, the assumption is that French acted as a cook or general helper to soldiers during the Civil War, in an unofficial capacity. Like another former slave buried at Riverside - Thomas Cottomas - whose story was told in this publication in February for the first time, in honor of Black History Month, these men sought asylum with Union soldiers as runaway slaves, assisting them in servitude for the opportunity to relocate to the North after the war. But unlike Cottomas, who found a way to officially enlist in an all-white Iowa regiment (partially made up of Marshalltonians), no documentation exists that French did the same.
One other newspaper account of his life exists; a story that commemorated a celebration from 25 years prior in 1889 - a Fourth of July event in the African American community.
“B.K. Bruce, the former colored senator from Mississippi, was the orator of the day … Tom Cottoms (sic) bearing the flag, and the venerable Josiah French headed the procession (held at Cummings’ grove.”)
When French died of pneumonia in 1892, the pall bearers selected for the funeral were among Marshalltown’s illustrious: photographer T. Brown, newspaper publisher E. N. Chapin, lawyers O. Caswell and J. F. Meeker, Battle of Shilo veteran Elliot Shurtz and printer J.W. Wells.
French lost contact with his wife and three children. At the time of his death, the T-R reported that it was believed his spouse lived in Leon, Iowa.
“We first discovered French in the old ‘Civil War Soldiers of Riverside’ book and from that, we discovered he was buried in the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) plot by members of the GAR veterans club of Marshalltown,” McCann said. “It is a remarkable story and a remarkable honor to him, and speaks very well of the soldiers who accepted him so generously, too.”
French’s remains are buried in the soil next to Cottomas, who in November of 2015, received a military headstone to replace his aged marker.
But for whatever reason, no headstone was ever installed to mark French’s final resting place.
“We don’t believe he’s eligible for a military marker since we’ve found no evidence he officially enlisted,” said Riverside general manager Dorie Tammen. “They were unable to locate his family at the time of his death, so it’s highly unlikely we’d be able to find any now, either.”
Information from: Times-Republican, https://www.timesrepublican.com
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