PORTLAND, Maine — Two dozen people gathered in the Eastern Cemetery on Saturday morning to honor William Brown. Nobody there, however, ever knew him. The veteran died in 1854.

“There are no pictures of him,” said local historian Herb Adams. “There’s no writing from him — he could not read or write. There are no kin descended from him. There’s just a few fragments of paper.”

He had no gravestone, either, until Saturday when two members of a local VFW post unveiled a new, marble marker under blue, sun-drenched skies. They then saluted the tablet and the sailor whose grave it marks, while flags flanking it fluttered in the breeze.

The ceremony honoring Brown, and the stone itself, came together through the hard work of two historians: Adams and his friend Larry Glatz. It was their dedicated research and unfailing hunt for justice that won Brown’s long overdue recognition. They documented his service, had a law changed in Augusta and fought with state and federal bureaucrats for four years. Saturday’s ceremony was the culmination of all their efforts.

Their entire saga was told in a BDN multimedia story in April.

William “Billy” Brown was a child soldier who went to sea in 1798. He served as a powder boy on the USS Constellation. His job was to carry buckets of gunpowder from the magazine to the cannons during battle. During one battle — during the nearly forgotten Quasi War with France — he was shot in the foot. It never healed properly and he had trouble walking for the rest of his life.

Brown was then cast aside by his country. He spent years wrangling with the federal government, trying to get a pension. But the African-American man never got medals or the help he was due. Instead, he lived a life of pain and poverty. When he died, he ended up a forgotten man in an unmarked grave in the Eastern Cemetery.

That historic wrong was righted, just a bit, on Saturday as taps sounded over the acres of the dead.

“Now William ‘Billy’ Brown, rest and be remembered,” said Adams. “Your story still speaks to us and so do you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘The voices of the past, if we but listen, they call to us, affectionately.’”

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.