'Like finding the Mona Lisa': Historian learns freed slave buried in Hamilton Cemetery is U.S. Civil War vet

A former Virginia slave who was laid to rest in the Hamilton Cemetery is believed to be the first Black man in Canada to have received an official U.S. Civil War headstone. Historian Robin McKee spoke to CBC News recently about how he found Nelson Stevens's unmarked grave in 2007 while doing research for one of his Civil War-themed tours.

‘It was like, holy mackerel,’ says Robin McKee on finding Nelson Stevens's special grave marker

Historian Robin McKee points to the Hamilton Cemetery burial site of Nelson Stevens, a Black veteran of the Civil War. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A former Virginia slave who was laid to rest in the Hamilton Cemetery on York Boulevard is believed to be the first Black man in Canada to have received an official U.S. Civil War headstone.

Recently, Hamilton historian Robin McKee spoke to CBC News about how he found Nelson Stevens's unmarked grave in 2007 while doing research for his Civil War-themed tour — one of several tours he has been conducting in the Hamilton Cemetery for 20 years.

McKee learned Stevens came north to escape slavery, settled in Hamilton and enlisted to fight for the Union Army against the Confederacy as a soldier in a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment.

Stevens was born in 1832 and died on May 18, 1890, at age 58.

"I was looking through a newspaper article, and it was telling about the Civil War veterans that would come to the cemetery on Memorial Day and lay flowers on their veterans' brotherhood," said McKee.

McKee's Civil War tours at Hamilton Cemetery led him to his research in learning the mystery behind an unmarked grave that ended up being the resting place for Stevens. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"They went to Nelson Stevens's grave and it said 'USCT.' And being the researcher and historian that I am, I knew what USCT was. And I went, 'Oh my goodness, that means United States Colored Troops.' So I had found a Black Civil War veteran in the Hamilton Cemetery.

"It was like finding the Mona Lisa. There was only one as far as I was concerned. It was like, holy mackerel," said McKee. 

He said while doing his research, he "almost disregarded Stevens totally" because someone had already done a listing of the Civil War veterans, and when it came to Stevens, they had spelled his last name incorrectly with a "PH." 

"Even at that time, I did not know that there was a Black man involved, because Stephens with a 'PH' is a white veteran's name," said McKee.

"But when I found that newspaper article, and they told me that Nelson Stevens with a 'V' was a United States Colored Troop [member], that's when I got into deep research. At that point I realized there was a separation in the spelling. I realized there were two people with the surname spelled two different ways."

McKee says finding the grave was marked USCT, which stands for United States Colored Troops, meant he had found a Black Civil War veteran. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

McKee travelled to Washington, D.C., where he found Stevens's records, including his enlistment papers, at the national archives.

"So what happened was that I'm holding his enlistment papers and he signed it with an 'X,' which told me he was an illiterate Black man," the historian said.

From his research, McKee learned Stevens was born in Lynchburg on the only tobacco plantation in that Virginia city.

How did he get to Hamilton? 

McKee said he doesn't know how Stevens got to Hamilton, but that he did not come via the Underground Railroad. 

"By 1863, slaves were now refugees or contraband, as they were known then, not escaped slaves." 

During the Civil War, said McKee, Stevens was a house slave, rolling cigars. When the North invaded Virginia and took over Lynchburg, they freed the slaves.

McKee said he suspects the army sent the freed slaves north, to Canada.

Back to the United States

But Stevens returned to the United States and enlisted on Feb. 22, 1865, in Buffalo, said McKee.

"The next thing I know is that in 1865, he's in Hamilton and he crosses the border in Buffalo, and he signs that enlistment paper that I had in my hands," he said.

"So he enlisted, and by enlisting with that 'X,' he went back to the [United] States … he goes to Florida, where the [USCT] were assigned.

In 1865, Stevens crossed the border in Buffalo. This is a copy of his enlistment paper, which he signed with an X. (Submitted by Robin McKee)

"The war ends in April 1865, so he was only a soldier for three months or so, and he ends up in New Orleans at the end of the war," said McKee. "His company — the 25th USCT Company B — was being ordered from fort to fort along the panhandle, up to New Orleans, relieving the white men who were serving as guards."

McKee said Stevens was given $100 US when he enlisted.

"At the time, that would have been like a million dollars," he said. 

"He had enough money to come back to Hamilton and get married."

Married with 4 children

Stevens was back in Hamilton in 1866, said McKee.

"He got married and he had four children — two girls and two boys. The girls survived and the two boys died as babies. And that's why there were three Nelson Stevens in the Hamilton Cemetery in unmarked graves — he was naming his boy children Nelson."

McKee said he couldn't find information on the family from the 1870s, and the next mention of Nelson Stevens was he was living on Duke Street, "which was three shacks down from Locke Street. He was living alone in a shack and he didn't even have a number. So he was poor."

McKee then read a newspaper from 1891 "about veterans going to [Stevens's] grave. He died in 1890, so there are big gaps of 20 years in Hamilton and I don't know what he did."

A headstone for Nelson Stevens

In the spring of 2007, armed with the information he had garnered from his research and a map of Hamilton Cemetery, McKee set out to find Stevens's grave.

McKee worked on co-ordinates to discover the exact spot where Stevens was buried. 

The spot was marked with an X.

"He was hidden in plain sight in an unmarked grave," said McKee.

When McKee launched the Civil War tour on Memorial Day weekend in 2007, Stevens's grave was still without a stone. During the tour, he told the story of the Black slave who went back to the U.S. to fight in the Civil War.

The president of the American Legion in Canada was among those listening, and handed McKee an application form for a headstone. 

"I filled it out, he wrote a letter of recommendation and I sent it off to Washington," said McKee.

"Later I got a phone call from the Hamilton Cemetery office and they said, 'Robin, your stone's arrived.' I said, 'What? What stone?'

The box bearing the official U.S. Civil War veteran headstone for Stevens arrives at the Hamilton Cemetery. (Robin McKee)

"I had forgotten all about it. So, I went to the cemetery, opened the box and there was the official American Civil War veteran headstone for Nelson Stevens, and the packaging slip had the official stamp of President George W. Bush." 

According to McKee, the U.S. consul general in Toronto was present for the official unveiling, and he brought the medal that Stevens should have received.

"He didn't [get it] in 1865 because he was Black. But now things changed and at that point they considered him Canadian," said McKee.

Stevens's medal presented to Nerene Virgin

Also present at the unveiling was Canadian journalist Nerene Virgin, who had reached out to McKee for help in finding her great-grandfather —Thomas John Holland — another Civil War veteran. Holland is also buried in Hamilton Cemetery, with a family headstone.

This Civil War medal for Stevens was presented to Canadian journalist Nerene Virgin, whose great-grandfather was also a veteran in that war. (Robin McKee)

Virgin said that when the opportunity came for Stevens to be recognized for his sacrifice and contribution, the consul general felt it would be appropriate for her to accept the medal and let it become part of her family, since her great-grand-father was entitled to the same award.

"It was humbling, thinking back on what my great-grandfather had endured in enslavement and the courage that it took him to flee on foot when he was 15 years old, risking his life and limb to get to a better place for him for subsequent generations," Virgin told CBC News.

"And then beyond that, to then have the courage to think that, 'I want others enslaved in the United States to enjoy the same freedoms that I have reached,' and to go back and risk his life again with his brother, it was humbling for me to stand there."

The U.S. consul general in Toronto, in 2006, presented the medal to Nerene Virgin. (Submitted by Nerene Virgin)

Virgin said that as she held the medal in her hand, it reinforced the baton was being passed to yet another generation, "and to think about what freedom is in its entirety, and to never take it for granted and to continue to ensure that we have the absolute freedoms that others have."

She expressed appreciation for McKee's work.

"It was heartbreaking to realize the sacrifice that Nelson Stevens had made. Thank goodness for Robin McKee taking the initiative, with his team, to get him acknowledged for having served," said VIrgin.

'It was humbling, thinking back on what my great-grandfather had endured in enslavement and the courage that it took him to flee,' says Virgin. (Submitted by Nerene Virgin)

For McKee, "It was a perfect moment of paying it forward by presenting the medal to someone who would appreciate it. It meant so much for Nerene."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.