More than 229 black Civil War soldiers are buried in Alexandria National Cemetery. Originally named Soldiers' Cemetery, the graveyard is one of several national cemeteries built in 1862 to accommodate the war dead. Thirty-seven regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) are represented in the cemetery, which holds a total of more than 3,500 graves. Soldiers of color from two white regiments, including one Native American soldier, are also buried there.
The Union Army originally restricted black troops to non-combat duties, but as the war progressed many black regiments fought on the front lines. By the end of the war members of the U.S.C.T. saw action in more than 400 engagements, including 39 major battles. More than 180,000 African-Americans joined the U.S.C.T., accounting for more than 10% of the Union force. More than 38,000 black troops died during the Civil War.
Many of the black soldiers buried at Soldiers' Cemetery died at an Alexandria hospital established for black soldiers in 1864. The greatest number of combat casualties hospitalized there were wounded in Petersburg at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, in which nine U.S.C.T. regiments participated.
At first, black soldiers who died in Alexandria were buried at Freedmen's Cemetery, established for "contrabands" (liberated slaves) in February 1864. This appears to have been instituted at the insistence of the Superintendent of Contrabands, black clergyman Reverend Albert Gladwin.
African-American soldiers recuperating at L'Ouverture General Hospital were outraged, and in December 1864 more than 440 of them signed a petition demanding that Soldiers' Cemetery be opened to blacks: "To crush this rebellion, and establish civil, religious, & political freedom for our children, is the hight [sic] of our ambition. To this end we suffer, for this we fight, yea and mingle our blood with yours . . . as soldiers in the U.S. Army. We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our countries [sic] flag."
The petitioners prevailed. Gladwin was replaced and black soldiers joined their fallen white comrades at Soldiers' Cemetery. Those already buried at Freedmen's Cemetery were re-interred. Graves of black soldiers were segregated from whites, however, in a separate section in the south central portion of the cemetery, just as black soldiers had been segregated at L'Ouverture General Hospital.
The appearance of the cemetery has been altered since the Civil War. The most notable changes are the substitution of marble for wooden headstones in 1876 and a stone wall for a picket fence surrounding the cemetery grounds, erected around1870. Wrought and cast iron gates stood at the main entrances to the cemetery. In the center of the cemetery a bronze tablet on a granite base stands as a monument to the men who drowned in the Rappahannock River while pursuing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. The U.S.C.T. graves are grouped in the south central portion of the cemetery.
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