To Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, paragraph 6 of the Emancipation Proclamation is the most important part of Lincoln's document:
"And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."
As Smith told a small group during a tour of the museum last week, with these words, Lincoln agreed to arm slaves, something that John Brown was hanged for less than 3 years earlier.
Eventually organized into about 175 regiments called the U.S. Colored Troops, or USCT, African American men joined the Union Army in the thousands. (The Navy already included blacks on board its vessels.) By 1865, about 10% of the Union Army, 180,000 men, were African American. Many were free-born, others escaped slavery. African American women supported the war effort as teachers, nurses, and other employees--as well as at home, shoring up their households and worrying about their family members in combat.
Many leaders, most notably Frederick Douglass, urged Lincoln to allow blacks to bear arms and serve as soldiers, rather than only as laborers and in other non-combat roles. The USCT provided a much-needed replenishment of fighting bodies. But they provided more, as Smith observed. Who better to understand the geography and psychology of the Confederacy? In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation, including establishment of the USCT, played an important role in dissuading England and other European countries from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy.
Douglass was also aware that laying down one's life for one's country was a powerful argument in support of voting rights. "Bullets to ballots"--the expression has been used in many contexts. The museum is putting together an exhibit on the voting rights legacy of the USCT now.
The USCT in Alexandria
Alexandria, with its concentration of freedmen mostly from other parts of Virginia, would have been a fertile place to recruit. Indeed, Julia Wilbur recounted several recruitment meetings. On one occasion, she sent an account to the Rochester Democrat & American, which published it on May 22, 1863 (signed J.A.W.):
"To-day, notice having been given that a War Meeting would be held in the year of "The Freedmen's Home," near the slave pen, at four o'clock P.M., a large crowd assembled and the exercises were extremely interesting....More than 200 names are enrolled and they are in a fair way to raise the desired regiment in this old, aristocratic and rebellious town of Alexandria...."
As a point of personal pride, an American flag she had sewed back in New York and brought with her to Alexandria was hoisted at the meeting. Yes, she mentioned that in the article.
New recruits trained before combat. Many returned to Alexandria en route to the front, such on May 1, 1864:
"A Colored Regt. was going through. They had music & banners. It was a full regt. & nearly all had muskets & many made a much greater show than the one that left this P.M. It seemed as if every body was out to see them, secesh [Southern-leaning local residents] & all. They went to the Soldiers Rest, where they will remain till morning. I must go to see them, if I can. This has been a glorious first of May in more senses than one. The day has been delightful, & to see these armed negroes passing through Alex. Virginia, passing by these Slave pens, one in ruins & the other occupied by Union soldiers [former slave-trading businesses]. We hear the remark on all sides “Well, bless the Lord, I did not think I should live to see such a sight!"—"
Many USCT troops spent time in Alexandria as patients at L'Ouverture Hospital and, in about 250 instances, are buried in the Alexandria Military Cemetery.
A Small Museum Hoping to Grow
As you exit from the U Street stop of the Metro, you'll first see a monument to the different branches of the USCT, dedicated in 1998, and a list of all known USCT members.
Walk across Vermont Avenue to a passageway that goes into the museum, which now consists of a small meeting area and about 20 exhibit panels.
Smith told us about the museum's expansion plans. The nearby Grimke School was recently acquired, which will triple the size of the museum and provide a strong connection with what once occupied this area, a Union barracks and then freedmen's housing called Camp Barker.