“As American citizens, we have a right….”: Death, Protest, and Respect in Alexandria, Virginia

“As American citizens, we have a right….”: Death, Protest, and Respect in Alexandria, Virginia

One of the newest—yet oldest—members of the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network (AACRN) is the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, first established in 1864 in Alexandria, Virginia.

The sites in the AACRN, created by Congress in 2017, “offer a comprehensive overview of the people, places, and events associated with the civil rights movement in the United States.”[1] So while the cemetery is a place of commemoration, the focus for the June 2021 designation focuses on the civil rights action that it precipitated.

That action began when hospitalized U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) successfully protested how they should be treated in their final sacrifice for the Union—their deaths.

As context, Federal troops occupied Alexandria, across from Washington, throughout the Civil War. Wharves and railroad lines transported tons of supplies and thousands of soldiers in and out of the city. Thirty-two hospitals opened in confiscated, abandoned, or rapidly constructed buildings. Among them, L’Ouverture Hospital, built for non-white soldiers and civilians, opened in February 1864. Its wards soon filled with USCT patients, many from the Battle of the Crater. Dysentery and other diseases afflicted other patients. The Army was also officially responsible for providing support to the roughly 8,000 freedpeople who left enslavement to seek freedom in Alexandria.[2]

Dealing with the dead unfortunately grew in priority. In July 1862, Congress allowed for creation of 14 national cemeteries, including what was then called Soldiers’ Cemetery in Alexandria (now Alexandria National Cemetery).[3] By September, the Alexandria Gazette reported “one thousand interments in the Soldiers Cemetery in this place,” and about 18 months later, noted its expansion onto adjacent land.[4]

Black and white image of rows of headstones in a cemetery
Soldiers’ Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1864. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpb-03928

Freedpeople (known then as “contrabands,” since they were considered contraband Confederate property) were buried in an existing paupers’ cemetery until not an inch remained. “The contraband are literally packed away,” wrote white Quaker relief agent Julia Wilbur, who was told by a grave-digger that he had to place three or four bodies in each pit.[5] In 1864, the Army confiscated land belonging to Robert E. Lee’s lawyer to build a new “contraband burial ground.” It provided at least some dignity—a casket, wooden marker, and listing in a record book with the person’s name, age, and cause of death.[6]

But conflict brewed. The Superintendent of Contrabands, a white Connecticut minister named Albert Gladwin, had charge of the new cemetery. He ordered the burial of deceased USCT alongside Black civilians rather than fellow soldiers. No clear reason has surfaced why, although the order may have been caught up in bureaucratic wrangling between the Military Governor (to whom Gladwin reported) and the Quartermaster (responsible for Soldier’s Cemetery). As another possibility, Wilbur and others wrote about Gladwin’s disrespect toward Blacks; taking away the honor of lying in a military burial ground may have been part and parcel of this attitude.[7]

On December 26, 1864, one man too many was denied the military honor due him. When Gladwin ordered the hearse carrying Pvt. Shadrick Murphy to the contraband cemetery, the driver objected, although in vain. Word got back to L’Ouverture Hospital. It is unclear why Murphy’s interment proved the breaking point. With the fluctuating patient population, perhaps one or more men had entered the hospital who could turn dismay into action.

They acted quickly, powerfully, and decisively.

A petition was drawn up that asserted the right of a member of the USCT to the honor of a military burial. Within a day, it was signed by or on behalf of 443 men across the hospital’s wards. Each person’s name, rank, company, and regiment are listed.

Historic document with petition and signatures of signees
The petition circulated by USCT soldiers at L’Ouverture Hospital, December 1864. (Photo courtesy of author).

The petition’s author is not identified, but its message is clear, stating in part:

We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army, we have cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers to crush out the God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.

As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are how sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should shair [sic] the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color…[8]

 

When Surgeon-in-Charge Edwin Bentley received the petition on December 27, he sent it to Quartermaster J.G.C. Lee, who had responsibility for the military cemetery. The next day, Lee sent it to Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs with a letter of support. “The feeling on the part of the colored soldiers is unanimous to be placed in the military cemetery and it seems but just and right that they should be,” Lee told Meigs.[9]

Meigs agreed. Henceforth, the USCT dead would rest in Soldiers’ Cemetery. Moreover, in January 1865, the 118 soldiers buried in the civilian cemetery were disinterred and moved to the military cemetery. Of the 270 USCT buried in Alexandria National Cemetery, at least 23 had signed the petition.[10]

More recent action also merits designation of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial as part of the AASCN. After 1869, the markers of its approximately 1,700 souls deteriorated.  Vegetation and development took over the cemetery. The property changed hands several times. By the mid-1950s, a gas station operated on it, despite an earlier contract’s explicit prohibition not to use the land for an “automobile service station.”[11]

In the mid-1980s, its past reemerged. Plans to construct a bridge across the Potomac River required studies of the surrounding area, which encompassed the site. Documentary research found references to the cemetery that earlier city leaders had ignored; archaeological work, including ground-penetrating radar, found 541 graves. And  in 1995, a historian discovered the tattered record book in an Arlington County archive.[12]

Years of advocacy culminated in city investment to create the current-day Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. Beige stones designate where graves were discovered. Art installations inspire and educate. Bronze panels are inscribed with each person’s name from the record book. A genealogist has, to date, connected more than 180 families with ancestors buried there.[13]

Fence in foreground with a bronze memorial in the background.
Freedman and Contraband Cemetery Memorial today. Beige stones on the grass and brick sidewalk mark where archaeological investigations found evidence of graves, which were left undisturbed. (Photo courtesy of author).

At the ceremony marking the AASCN designation in July 2021, Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, stressed the site’s role as one part of the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project.[14] “The City of Alexandria has made a commitment to social justice in all branches of city government,” she said. “This important work, in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative, strives to bring justice to the interpretation of Alexandria’s Black history. The honor by the National Park Service is a critical step toward that goal.”

 

[1] “Discover the Network,” African American Civil Rights Network, available online at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/civilrights/discover-the-network.htm

[2] Sarah Traum, Bryan Corle, and Joseph Balicki, Documentary Study, Archaeological Evaluation and Resource Management Plan for 1323 Duke Street, Alexandria, Virginia, Final Report, May 2007, available online at https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/archaeology/SiteReportTraum1323Duke.pdf

[3] Omnibus Act PL 165, Section 18, passed July 17, 1862, allowed President Lincoln “to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in service of the country.”

[4] Alexandria Gazette, September 12, 1863, pg. 1; June 27, 1864, pg. 3.

[5] Julia Wilbur, May 15, 1863; February 5, 1864. MC. 1158, Box 4, Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College.

[6] “Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery, Site #44AX0179/VDHR #100-0121-1085,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, National Park Service, available at  https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/100-1021-1085_Contrabands_and_Freedmen_Cemetery_2012_NRHP_FINAL.pdf

[7] Gladwin explained his burial methods in a letter to Military Governor John Slough on December 16, 1864, contained in Letters Received, 1862-1865, Records of the Military Governor of Alexandria, Records of the United States Army Continental Commands, RG 393, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For an example describing Gladwin’s attitudes toward African Americans, see Julia Wilbur to Anna M.C. Barnes, March 5, 1864, Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1848-1868, available at http://name.umdl.umich.edu/rochester.0001.061

[8] The petition is in Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Entry 576, General Correspondence and Reports Related to National and Post Cemeteries, NARA. For a transcript of the full petition and signatories, see Timothy Dennee and Lillie Finklea, “Convalescent Soldiers in L’Ouverture Hospital ‘Express Our View’ on Burial Location,” available at http://www.freedmenscemetery.org/resources/documents/louverture.shtml

[9]J.G.C. Lee to Montgomery Meigs, December 28, 1864, Quartermaster’s Office, Alexandria, VA, RG 92, Entry 576, NARA.

[10] Edward Miller, “Volunteers for Freedom: Black Civil War Soldiers in Alexandria National Cemetery, Part I,” Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Fall 1998, and “Volunteers for Freedom: Black Civil War Soldiers in Alexandria National Cemetery, Part II,” Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 1998.

[11] “Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery, Site #44AX0179/VDHR #100-0121-1085,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, National Park Service, available at  https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/100-1021-1085_Contrabands_and_Freedmen_Cemetery_2012_NRHP_FINAL.pdf

[12] Wesley E. Pippenger, Alexandria, Virginia Death Records, 1863-1868 (the Gladwin Record) and 1869-1896. (Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications, 1995).

[13] Char McCargo Bah, Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019).

[14] “Alexandria Community Remembrance Project,” available at https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/blackhistory/default.aspx?id=106501

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017) is a biography of a New York teacher who served as a relief agent in Alexandria during the Civil War. She is currently researching the intersecting lives of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and the family of author Nathaniel Parker Willis. Her website and blog are at paulawhitacre.com.

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