From 1864 to 1867, the U.S. Army operated a hospital for black soldiers and civilians in Alexandria. The complex stretched over several blocks and consisted of barracks and hospital tents, enough for more than 600 patients at a time, as well as a surgeons' office, cook house, and dead house. The plans also called for construction of a school room, about 27 by 40 feet.
On Saturday, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and City of Alexandria inaugurated a marker on the 1300 block of Prince Street near where the hospital stood. It reads:
Named for the Haitian revolutionary, L’Ouverture Hospital opened early in 1864 near the Freedmen’s barracks in Alexandria to serve sick and injured United States Colored Troops (USCT). Designed by the U.S. Army, the hospital complex could accommodate about 700 patients and occupied the space of a city block. The hospital also served African American civilians, many of whom had escaped from slavery and sought refuge in Alexandria. In Dec. 1864, more than 400 patients led a successful protest demanding that USCTs be buried in Alexandria National Cemetery with full honors rather than be interred at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.
Short but Sweet Ceremony
The Office of Historic Alexandria held a ceremony on, lucky for us, a picture-perfect autumn morning. The existing neighborhood of townhomes has a small interior parking lot where we could gather, away from the traffic.
Members of the Shiloh Baptist Church choir sang a cappella, a beautiful way to mark the place. The church began in L'Ouverture by a minister named Leland Warring, before moving into its own building (since expanded) nearby.
I was asked to make brief remarks about the history of the hospital. How to distill it into 5 minutes (my time limit)? I tried to describe what happened in the very spot where we sat.
Two Previous Public Events
Since it was a public event, I told about two previous ones.
First, August 1, Emancipation Day. Before the War, many Northern communities celebrated this date to mark the end of slavery in the West Indies, hoping someday the end of slavery would be marked in the U.S. Before the war, Alexandria never held a public Emancipation Day.
Harriet Jacobs, who came to Alexandria in January 1863 as a relief worker, and her daughter Louisa, a teacher, organized a Emancipation Day celebration for the L’Ouverture community. It included music, prayer, and food.
The highlight was when Harriet presented an American flag to the hospital. She got up to speak—not a common occurrence for a woman, and especially not a black woman in 1864. She said, in part:
Soldiers…three years ago, this flag had no significance for you, we could not cherish it as our emblem of freedom. You then had not taken part in the bloody struggle for your country, your patriotism was spurned… Soldiers, you have made it the symbol of freedom for the slave.
As that ceremony shows, L’Ouverture represented a place to gather--not just a hospital.
Next, December 1864, referred to on the marker about a "successful protest." A small group drafted a petition to demand their rights as equal members of the armed forces.
They wrote at the top of the petition:
As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color….We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our country's flag.
Within a day or two, they managed to get more than 400 men to sign on. In addition to the strength of the sentiment, think about how impressive that was logistically—before the days of online petitions.
The petition went up the chain of command, reaching the Quartermaster General in Washington within days. Their request was honored.
Many other stories took place here, I said. Large ones related to war and rights. Small, but also important ones, related to the healing of bodies and minds.
It was an honor to be part of the ceremony to mark the hospital and all that happened there. You can read more about and Alexandria's other 30+ Union hospitals on the Office of Historic Alexandria website.