Book review: Local author tells story of early Pittsfield minister

"The Rev. Samuel Harrison: Abolitionist, Activist, and Chaplain of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment" by South Egremont author Ann-Elizabeth Barnes is an important new history of renewed transparency, depth and truth that brings to light the remarkable story of the first minister of the Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield.

Samuel Harrison was supported by presidents and senators and Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew in his activism. He was the chaplain of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, the first black regiment raised in the North to fight in the Civil War in the assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., July 18, 1863. The regiment was led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who married Annie Kneeland Haggerty of Ventfort Hall in Lenox. This event has been made famous in recent times by the film, "Glory," and immortalized in a memorial panel by Augustus Saint-Gaudeus in Boston. Through Harrison's efforts and influence, he secured equal pay for all black soldiers in 1864. Harrison became minister at the Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield in 1850, the same year Harriet Tubman began aiding slaves to escape the South by way of the Underground Railroad.

The book is both a more accurate reexamination of local and national history, and the author's own reconstruction of conversations Harrison may have had. Barnes describes the book as her, "attempt to participate in the re-writing of American history by telling the stories of African-American historic figures of Berkshire County," in a more complete characterization of record.

In her introduction to the book, Barnes explains how her knowledge of black history in the Berkshires did not include what a pivotal role this area played in the Abolitionist Movement and in its direct involvement in the Civil War. An important aspect of this book is a concise timeline and precious images, beginning with Jan Rodrigues, in 1613, described as, "an African left behind by a Dutch sailing vessel, settles in Manhattan, (the) first non-native resident of America," and then, in 1619, "First cargo of kidnapped and enslaved Africans arrives at the English colony of Jamestown, Va." In 1861, the Civil War commences on April 12 and lasts for four years where over 750,000 are killed and many more severely wounded, disabled and impoverished. These numbers and the enormity of the Civil War, Abolition Movement and the Berkshire connection comes through with new clarity. In an interesting twist to this story, through her research for the book, the author discovered to her own astonishment that her early ancestors were actually among the original founders of the towns of Pittsfield and Sheffield. This biography is an opportunity to revisit how we see ourselves, our community, and the nation in a more inclusive way.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at


"The Rev. Samuel Harrison"

By Ann-Elizabeth Barnes

Publisher: Crow Flies Press

175 pages


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