After the Bureau for Colored Troops was established in May 1863, African-American troops began training for front line duty in the Civil War at camps around Alexandria. Although there were already several hospitals for white soldiers in the area, in February 1864, the Union army opened a hospital for black soldiers in Alexandria. L'Ouverture General Hospital also treated "contrabands" — southern slaves who escaped during the Civil War — who poured into Alexandria seeking jobs, shelter, and Union protection. A contraband camp developed next door to the hospital, on the site of a former slave jail.
Next door to the jail, the army built three large wooden barracks and a school for "contrabands." "Contrabands," who were treated with varying degrees of civility by different Union commanders, were often employed by the army to build military facilities; the Alexandria contrabands may have helped to build the hospital and camp complex. As at other contraband camps, the inhabitants quickly created neighborhood institutions such as schools and churches. Shiloh Baptist Church was organized by contrabands at the L'Ouverture camp in 1863.
The name of the hospital aligned the Union troops stationed in Alexandria with the Haitian revolutionary (Francois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1743-1803) who led the overthrow of slavery in Hispaniola in 1797, suggesting a degree of solidarity with his cause. Alexandria also had, at the time, a black neighborhood called Hayti.
By the end of the war, 38,000 of the 180,000 black soldiers who enlisted had died, most from disease and unsanitary hospital conditions. Freedmen who died at L'Ouverture were held in the hospital's "dead house" on Payne Street and then buried in Freedmen's Cemetery. In 1879, construction workmen found bones from amputated limbs at the site of the former hospital.
The hospital complex included a hospital, dispensary, dead house, sink and long tents for recovering soldiers. Most structures were built of wood by the Union solders and no longer survive. A three-story brick structure which was confiscated for use as the hospital headquarters still stands at 217-219 S. Payne Street.
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Block between 1300 Duke, 1300 Prince, 200 S. Payne and 200 S. West Streets