Dying for Equality: African Americans in Alexandria

United States Colored Troops in Alexandria, Virginia. Source: Private collection of Charles Joyce; used with permission.

“’Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go’, ‘and where thou fightest I will fight’, and ‘where thou diest I will die’, and ‘there will i be buried’, and for this, your humble petitionars will ever pray.”– USCT, L’Ouverture Hospital, 1864

In 1864, a group of United States Colored Troops (USCT) wrote and signed this Patients’ Petition for burial in Soldiers’ Cemetery, later Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC) in Alexandria, VA.  Before they were considered citizens of the United States and a century before the Civil Rights Movement, these men were determined to secure the equal honor and respect earned by those who died for it.

Julia Wilbur, a volunteer at the Freedmen’s Cemetery, kept a diary that recounts the conditions and opposition faced by the USCT. Source: Haverford College, Quaker and Special Collections.

In 1862, Congress authorized the Quartermaster Department to establish fourteen national cemeteries around the nation and allowed those “of African descent” to join the military.  However, neither units nor burial grounds were integrated; rather the Union established separate units and maintained separate cemeteries.  Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, accommodated numerous hospitals and cemeteries.  The USCT regiments continued to be separately buried in the nearby Freedmen and Contraband cemetery for former slaves despite their sacrifice as soldiers.  In nearby L’Ouverture General Hospital, sick and/or injured USCT on the black ward wrote a petition for burial in the Soldiers’ Cemetery.  Within the month, General Montgomery Meigs, commander of the Quartermaster Department, received the petition and made the decision to integrate that would set the precedence for equality and respect in cemeteries across the country.

Through this story, ANC offers an insight into the complexities of racial prejudice that has persisted throughout American history.  A century before the Civil Rights Movement, the actions of these USCT demonstrated the struggle for equality in U.S. history.  For Us the Living: Learning from the Stories of Alexandria National Cemetery is an interactive site that allows high school students to focus on this and other national themes, such as women in the military and civil duty and sacrifice.  Fighting Side by Side, the USCT module, presents students with primary sources to guide them through historical discovery and learning.   Through analysis of these documents students learn stories that highlight the history of ANC and draw connections to American history.

Launching in Fall 2018, For Us the Living is a free resource available for students and teachers around the country. This project is supported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) as part of the Veterans Legacy Program.