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Alexandria National Cemetery Contrabands and Freedmens Cemetery

“Oh, give us a flag, All free without a slave”

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln held a New Year’s Day Reception at the White House. He shook so many hands of the dignitaries, officials, and members of the general public who attended that afterward, he was afraid his hands would shake when signing The Emancipation Proclamation later that day. The proclamation changed the course of the war by not only freeing slaves in the states still in rebellion against the north, but it also authorized arming and training regiments of “colored volunteers” to fight for the north. 1President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, after the Army of the Potomac defeated Lee’s army at Antietam on September 17, 1862. It stated that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoined the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, ……… order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free…. [S]uch persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States…. 2The actual order creating the Bureau of Colored Troops was General Order number 143, issued on May 22, 1863.

The Proclamation freed approximately 3 million enslaved men, women, and children in the states still in rebellion.

“And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.” 

An estimated 180,000 Freedmen and Contrabands, or fugitive slaves, answered Lincoln’s call. This amounted to one-tenth of those that fought for the North during the last two years of the war. The soldiers were organized into 175 regiments. Called the United States Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T., they made a mighty contribution to the Union’s victory in the American Civil War. 3Of the 180,000 Freedman and Contrabands that joined the army, approximately 38,000 to 43,000 died, and another 30,000 plus were wounded. Many of the deaths were caused by disease.

In Virginia, on May 15, 1863, the 23rd Regiment of the United State Colored Troops assisted the 2nd Ohio Cavalry during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. While a minor skirmish, their actions that day proved to many white soldiers that Blacks would fight when given the opportunity. U.S.C.T. soldiers also fought at Vicksburg, Petersburg, Richmond, Nashville, Fort Fisher, and Appomattox.

The Army of the James’s XXV (25th) Corps, which consisted of over 13,000 men, including infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was made up entirely of U.S.C.T. soldiers. As with every regiment, white officers led black enlisted soldiers. They fought in the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, were present at the fall of Petersburg, and helped during the pursuit of Lee’s army after the fall of Richmond, Virginia, sometimes marching thirty miles in one day. Two regiments of the XXV Crops also took part in the Battle of Clover Hill, the last battle between the Union and Confederate forces before Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. They were transferred to Texas in May, where they became the Army of Occupation. The XXV Corps was disbanded on January 8, 1866.

Recruiting Poster for United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). Library of Congress.

“Then here is to the 54th.”

The most famous U.S.C.T. regiment in the war was the 54th Massachusetts. 4The 54th was depicted in the 1989 award-winning film Glory, in which Denzel Washington portrayed Private Trip. Ironically, another movie that stars Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone in the movie called Remember the Titans. Released in 2000, it is based on Alexandria’s 1971 Virginia State Football championship team. One of the stars of that team was Julius Campbell. He is buried in Bethel Cemetery, just a few hundred paces from the U.S.C.T. soldiers buried in The Alexandria National Cemetery. Consisting of mostly educated Freedmen, including two of Frederick Douglas’s sons, it was led by Robert Gould Shaw, who hailed from a prominent Boston abolitionist family. On July 18, 1863, they were the lead regiment in the attack on Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island, South Carolina. The 54th, and nine other white regiments, successfully scaled the ramparts and entered the fort, but then were driven out by the Confederate defenders who regained the fort and inflicted heavy casualties on the Union soldiers during their retreat. The 54th lost 45% of its force that day, including Colonel Shaw, who was killed in the initial charge up the ramparts as he shouted, “Forward, 54th!”. After the battle, he was buried unceremoniously in a mass grave with many of the brave men of the regiment that died during the assault. Lewis Douglas, one of Frederick Douglas’s sons, wrote: Saturday night we made the most desperate charge of the war on Fort Wagner, losing in killed, wounded and missing in the assault, three hundred of our men. The splendid 54th is cut to pieces. 5Letter from Lewis Douglass to Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, July 20, 1863. Transcribed in Freedom’s Journey: African American Voices of the Civil War, ed. Donald Yacovone (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004), p. 108-9.

The fierce determination of the U.S.C.T. soldiers during the assault on Fort Wagoner convinced skeptics that armed African Americans could fight. Many members of the 54th received medals for their valor that day, including Sergeant William Carney, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. All told, sixteen U.S.C.T. soldiers earned the Medal of Honor during the entire war.

The Storming of Ft Wagner-lithograph by Kurz and Allison 1890. Image from the Library of Congress.

“Ole Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed

The Confederacy’s reaction to arming colored men was harsh. They threatened to hang their white officers, sell into slavery any captured Black Union soldiers, and refused to treat them as prisoners of war.

In response, on July 31, 1863, Lincoln issued General Order 252, which stated: “It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery[,] a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.” The order did not stop the Confederates from atrocities against armed African Americans.

On April 12, 1864, during the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Confederates under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest slaughtered hundreds of U.S.C.T. soldiers who had surrendered during the fight. “The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct—intentional murder—for the vilest of reasons—racism and personal enmity.” 6Richard Fuchs, An Unerring Fire: The Massacre At Fort Pillow (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole, 2002), p. 14.

The war in Tennessee: Confederates massacre Union soldiers after they surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864. Frank Leslie (1821-1880).

“About the courage of the colored volunteers.”

On July 30, 1864, the Battle of the Crater occurred during the siege of Petersburg. As at Fort Pillow, many U.S.C.T. soldiers were massacred after surrendering.

Union sappers, mostly Pennsylvania miners from the 48th PA, spent several weeks digging a mine shaft 510 feet long under a Confederate salient and packed it with over 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. Once the tunnel was finished, the power would be blown, and Union soldiers would rush through the gap and hopefully break the stalemate of months of trench warfare.

For two weeks, two divisions of U.S.C.T soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero had trained to lead the Union assault once the mine blew. One division was tasked to go to the left of the crater and the other to the right, and by doing so, would bypass the hole altogether. They then were tasked with extending the breach perpendicular down the Confederate’s line on either side. This would allow subsequent follow-up soldiers to fan out beyond the breach and seize an important road 1600 yards beyond, and perhaps Petersburg.

However, despite careful planning, at the last moment, Major General George Meade ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the IX Corps, not to use U.S.C.T. soldiers as the lead assault troops. Burnside then selected Brigadier General James Ledlie’s First Division to lead the assault instead. The change doomed the operation. 7Meade didn’t have any confidence in the operation and didn’t want to face the consequences if the U.S.C.T. soldiers were slaughtered, so he ordered Burnside to replace them with Ledlie’s all-white division.

When the mine exploded at 4:40 a.m. on the 30th, it blew a gap 130 long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep in the Confederate fortifications and immediately killed 278 Confederate soldiers. After the dust settled, Ledlie’s troops moved into the crater instead of going around it as the U.S.C.T. soldiers had been trained because they thought it would make an excellent rifle pit to take cover. To make matters worse, their commanding officer did not brief them on what to expect, refused to lead them during the battle, stayed behind the lines, and got drunk. 8Ledlie was dismissed from the Union army by the command of General Grant. Burnside was removed from command of the IV Corps and placed on leave. He was never recalled for active duty again. Burnside had distinctive whiskers on his face, which were called “sideburns.” Too late, Ledlie’s troops realized they were trapped inside the deep crater. After recovering from the shock of the explosion, the Confederates sealed off the breach, formed lines around the crater, fired rifles and cannons down into the bottom, and fired upon the Union soldiers inside the crater. It was like “shooting fish in a barrel.” Burnside sent Union reinforcements, including Ferrero’s U.S.C.T. soldiers, into the battle, who also descended into the crater. The Confederates just slaughtered them as they did the rest of the IX Corps.

Eventually, a few Union soldiers were able to break free and push back the Confederates, which allowed survivors inside the crater to retreat. After several hours of hand-to-hand combat, the Confederates were able to reclaim the earthworks and drive the Union troops away.

Union casualties were 3,798, including 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 missing or captured. The Confederates lost 1,491 men (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). Most of the Union losses were suffered by Ferrero’s division of the United States Colored Troops, who were killed after they surrendered. Union Commander General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.” 9The Papers of Ulysses S Grant, Vol 11, p 362.

Afterward, one Confederate soldier wrote back home that all the colored prisoners “would have been killed had it not been for gen Mahone who beg our men to Spare them.” One of his comrades killed several, he continued; Mahone “told him for God’s sake stop.” The man replied, “Well gen let me kill one more,” whereupon, according to the correspondent, “he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut one’s throat.” 10Wiley, Bell Irvin, (2008) [First published 1943]. The Life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 314–15.

After the battle, a few wounded U.S.C.T. soldiers ended up in the L’Ouverture General Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Those that died were eventually buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery. But their journey to their final resting place was not easy since, initially, they were buried in another Alexandria cemetery.

“We had a hard road to travel.”

In 1865, a petition was circulated and signed by 443 U.S.C.T. soldiers who were convalescing in the L’Ouverture Hospital. They objected to being called “Contrabands,” a term used to describe fugitive slaves who ran away from their enslavers during the war. The petition requested “…the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers who differ only in color…” and that black soldiers who had died in Alexandria and buried in the Contraband and Freeman’s Cemetery located at 1001 S. Washington Street, be removed and be reburied next to their white brothers-in-arms in the Soldier’s Cemetery on Wilkes Street.

After receiving the petition, the United States Government ordered that 118 U. S. C. T. soldiers who previously were buried in the Contraband and Freedman’s Cemetery be disinterred and reburied in the Soldier’s Cemetery. Twenty-three signers of the petition later died and were buried in the Soldier’s Cemetery. After the war, the cemetery’s name was changed to Alexandria National Cemetery.

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

Among the 249 members of the U.S.C.T. soldiers buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery is Private Adolphus Jacobs of the 28th Infantry. 11The 28th United States Colored Infantry, also called the 28th Indiana Infantry (Colored), was an African American infantry regiment from Indiana that fought in the American Civil War. The 28th losses at the Battle of the Crater were 11 killed, 64 wounded, and 13 missing, a total of 88. Shot through the hip at the Battle of the Crater, he wrote home from Alexandria a month later: I never got over the hurt i received at the Charge at petersburgh but i am as Well as far as health is concerned as i ever was.” 12Miller, Edward A. Jr. Alexandria Historical Quarterly. Volunteers for Freedom: Black Soldiers in the Alexandria National Cemetery, Part II. The Office of History Alexandria. Published Winter 1998. Pg 2.

Private Jacobs never recovered and died on August 14, 1864, at 22, and was buried in the Contrabands and Freedmens Cemetery. 13Jacob’s burial is recorded in the Gladwin Records: “JACOBS, Adolphus (Pvt. Co. D 28th USCT), 14 AUG 1864, 22y, L’Ouverture Hospital”. Discovered by Wesley Pippenger at the Library of Virginia, the Gladwin Records was started in March 1863 by Eliphalet Owen, a minister and clerk/assistant to Superintendent of Contrabands Rev. Albert Gladwin, who was in charge of the Alexandria Field Office from October of 1863 – January of 1865 when he was dismissed for failure to follow orders. The records continued to be maintained by the Freedmen’s Bureau until January 1869. His remains were disinterred and reburied on January 20, 1865, in the Alexandria National Cemetery, where he now rests peacefully.

Private Adolphus Jacobs’ gravestone is in the Alexandria National Cemetery. Photo by D. Heiby.

There are over 3500 Union soldiers, including 249 members of the United States Colored Troops, at rest in the cemetery, all heroes who truly died “to make man free!” 14From the fourth stanza of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe. 1861.

Give Us a Flag

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment sang this song. The 54th was the most famous regiment of the United States Colored Troops that fought in the war. The author of the song is unknown. You can read along while listening to this version by Richie Havens.

Give us a flag (author unknown), sung by Richie Havens. Songs of the Civil War was released in 1991 by Columbia Records, which own the rights.

Oh, Frémont he told them when the war it first begun,

How to save the Union and the way it should be done.

But Kentucky swore so hard and Old Abe he had his fears,

Till ev’ry hope was lost but the colored volunteers.

CHORUS:

Oh, give us a flag,

All free without a slave;

We’ll fight to defend it as our fathers did so brave;

The gallant Comp’ny “A”,

Will make the rebels dance,

And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.

McClellan went to Richmond with two hundred thousand brave;

He said, “Keep back the niggers” and the Union he would save;

Little Mac he had his way, still the Union is in tears,

Now they call for the help of the colored volunteers.

CHORUS

Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,

A very big thing , but we are not at all alarmed;

For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear,

And that is “what’s the matter” with the colored volunteer.

CHORUS

So rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past;

We had a hard road to travel, but our day is coming fast;

For God is for the right, and we have no need to fear,

The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.

CHORUS

Then here is to the 54th, which has been nobly tried,

They were willing, they were ready, with their bayonets by their side,

Colonel Shaw led them on and he had no cause to fear,

About the courage of the colored volunteer.

CHORUS

Sources of Information

Wiley, Bell Irvin, (2008) [First published 1943]. The Life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Miller, Edward A. Jr. Alexandria Historical Quarterly. Volunteers for Freedom: Black Soldiers in the Alexandria National Cemetery, Part II. The Office of History Alexandria. Published Winter 1998.

Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Volume 5. Heritage Books, Inc. Berwyn Heights, Maryland. 2014.

The official website of The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia. First accessed 2019.

The official website of the City of Alexandria, Virginia, and an article about the Alexandria National Cemetery. Accessed July 2022.

Wikipedia article on the Battle of the Crater. Accessed October 2022.

Official website of the United States Army and Medal of Honor recipients. Accessed November 2022.

  • 1
    President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, after the Army of the Potomac defeated Lee’s army at Antietam on September 17, 1862. It stated that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoined the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.
  • 2
    The actual order creating the Bureau of Colored Troops was General Order number 143, issued on May 22, 1863.
  • 3
    Of the 180,000 Freedman and Contrabands that joined the army, approximately 38,000 to 43,000 died, and another 30,000 plus were wounded. Many of the deaths were caused by disease.
  • 4
    The 54th was depicted in the 1989 award-winning film Glory, in which Denzel Washington portrayed Private Trip. Ironically, another movie that stars Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone in the movie called Remember the Titans. Released in 2000, it is based on Alexandria’s 1971 Virginia State Football championship team. One of the stars of that team was Julius Campbell. He is buried in Bethel Cemetery, just a few hundred paces from the U.S.C.T. soldiers buried in The Alexandria National Cemetery.
  • 5
    Letter from Lewis Douglass to Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, July 20, 1863. Transcribed in Freedom’s Journey: African American Voices of the Civil War, ed. Donald Yacovone (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004), p. 108-9
  • 6
    Richard Fuchs, An Unerring Fire: The Massacre At Fort Pillow (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole, 2002), p. 14.
  • 7
    Meade didn’t have any confidence in the operation and didn’t want to face the consequences if the U.S.C.T. soldiers were slaughtered, so he ordered Burnside to replace them with Ledlie’s all-white division.
  • 8
    Ledlie was dismissed from the Union army by the command of General Grant. Burnside was removed from command of the IV Corps and placed on leave. He was never recalled for active duty again. Burnside had distinctive whiskers on his face, which were called “sideburns.”
  • 9
    The Papers of Ulysses S Grant, Vol 11, p 362.
  • 10
    Wiley, Bell Irvin, (2008) [First published 1943]. The Life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 314–15.
  • 11
    The 28th United States Colored Infantry, also called the 28th Indiana Infantry (Colored), was an African American infantry regiment from Indiana that fought in the American Civil War. The 28th losses at the Battle of the Crater were 11 killed, 64 wounded, and 13 missing, a total of 88.
  • 12
    Miller, Edward A. Jr. Alexandria Historical Quarterly. Volunteers for Freedom: Black Soldiers in the Alexandria National Cemetery, Part II. The Office of History Alexandria. Published Winter 1998. Pg 2.
  • 13
    Jacob’s burial is recorded in the Gladwin Records: “JACOBS, Adolphus (Pvt. Co. D 28th USCT), 14 AUG 1864, 22y, L’Ouverture Hospital”. Discovered by Wesley Pippenger at the Library of Virginia, the Gladwin Records was started in March 1863 by Eliphalet Owen, a minister and clerk/assistant to Superintendent of Contrabands Rev. Albert Gladwin, who was in charge of the Alexandria Field Office from October of 1863 – January of 1865 when he was dismissed for failure to follow orders. The records continued to be maintained by the Freedmen’s Bureau until January 1869.
  • 14
    From the fourth stanza of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe. 1861.
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By David

Hello. With a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The Presbyterian Cemetery has close ties to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, situated one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in this cemetery, which holds a special place in my heart.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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