Former Slave Who Served in 2 Wars to Receive Headstone in Marshalltown

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MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- A Marshalltown man is finally getting a headstone for his gravesite more than 100 years after his death.

His story is remarkable because he was a former slave who served with an all-white military unit.

Attendants at Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown say this is just one example of the hundreds of stories small town cemeteries hold.

When they discovered an unmarked grave belonged to a former slave who served in two wars, they knew they had to share his story with the community.

"When we started out with this, we just wanted the story to be known. I love history, and we just wanted to share it with the community. And in publishing the story in the local newspaper, a gentleman who was in Marshalltown, purely on business and has no connection here otherwise, happened to see the article the day it came out in the paper, and he contacted the writer from the newspaper the very next day. And we ended up having a phone conversation with him jointly, and he has offered to pay for a stone,” said Dorie Tammen, of Riverside Cemetery.

Josiah French was a former slave who served in a military company during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

Records show French was born in Mississippi, where he was a slave.  But later in life, he wound up in Iowa, helping all-white soldiers fight in war. He later died in Marshalltown.

Soldiers specifically requested he be buried in their special plot in the Riverside Cemetery, and that's where today's attendants discovered his story.

French's unmarked grave sits next to another former slave who was a soldier with the same unit. That man's grave does have a headstone because there are official records proving he served in the military.  While there's no proof what French did with this military unit, we do know he helped them survive and was respected enough to be buried alongside them.

"Part of what makes this story really remarkable is that both of these men were former slaves who were very much respected by the white soldiers that they worked with and helped to take care of. And normally, they would not have been buried in this section,” Tammen  said.

The records Riverside Cemetery has on French show he was greatly respected and loved by the Marshalltown community. His pallbearers included some of the most prominent people in town, including city officials and soldiers.

The story originally appeared in the Times-Republican by Sara Jordan-Heintz.