At the Dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge, Arlington, Virginia

IMG_1128 copy 2
Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, and Michael Schaffner at the dedication of Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia. Milton is holding the regimental flag of the XXV Army Corps of the United States army. The XXV Corps, which was created during the American Civil War, was composed entirely of soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.

Image Source: Courtesy Ed Gasaway of the African American Civil War Museum 

Northern Virginia, which is part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, was awash with freedom during the American Civil War. A combination of events – the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in April, 1862; the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863; the presence of federal troops throughout the area; and the movements of slaves themselves – caused the DC area to be flooded with former bondsmen and bondswomen, looking to start new lives as free people. On September 10, 2015, a bridge in Arlington, Virginia was dedicated to the memory of the community they created, which was named Freedmans Village.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, US Congressman Jim Moran, and other state and local officials were on hand to commemorate Freedmans Village Bridge, in Arlington. The crowd included descendants of Freedman’s Village residents. The new bridge replaces an aging structure that was in dire need of repair. Public officials and community members used the new bridge as an opportunity to commemorate the African Americans who made homes and a neighborhood for themselves across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

Freedmans Village Harpers
Freedmans Village, Arlington, Virginia, circa 1863-1865; from Harper’s Magazine

Created in 1863, at the midpoint of the the Civil War, Freedmans Village was the home of hundreds of former slaves, from Washington, DC (which was less than ten miles away), northern Virginia, and perhaps even nearby Maryland. The site is notable in part for having been created from land that was inherited by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of Martha Washington (husband of George Washington). Mary Anna was also the wife of Robert E. Lee, who became general in chief of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

This YouTube video, produced in 2009 by Arlington County, discusses the history of the Village:

Freedman’s Village was built on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. According to the Arlington Public Library, “more than 28,000 residents of Freedman’s Village are buried in Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery.”

Today, Freedmans Village is referred to as Freedmans Village. More history of the Freedman’s Village is here:
• Another YouTube video from Arlington County about the Village
Freedman’s Village
Remembering Freedman’s Village
• Freedman’s Village: a lost chapter of Arlington’s Black History

Freedmans Village Bridge 2
Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, Michael Schaffner and Alan Skerrett at the dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia.

Street Scene – Savannah, Georgia circa 1880s

Street Scene Savannah Georgia 1880s
“The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia”; African American with bull-drawn wagon; by photographer George Baker, 1886.
Image Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, retrieved from “” on September 3, 2015.

The American Civil War and the end of slavery wrought a sweeping transformation upon Savannah, Georgia, as they did on almost all the South. In her book Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, pages 347-8, historian Jacqueline Jones writes about how African Americans in Savannah experienced their new-found freedom by making reference to records from the 1870 Census. Her text gives an insight into the world that the man above entered in the wake of Jubilee in the post-war South: Continue reading

Outmanned and Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms, or props of firearms.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.


A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. […] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War


[This is a re-blog of a post that I published in 2012.]

The current debate about gun control, spurred by incidents such as the Newtown Tragedy of December, 2012, and more recent shootings that can be found via Internet search (such as here), gives me pause me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

To be clear: I am not taking any position regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and slightly selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. Two useful books on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook, and Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are available via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.

1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor effectively with tha cane knives and axes they wielded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distinctive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading

The Discover Freedmen Project: Digitizing Freedmen’s Bureau Records for Genealogy and Other Research

Video for The Freedmen’s Bureau Project:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is an effort to digitize records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which can be used for genealogical and other research. The Project’s website,, provides this background:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is helping African Americans reconnect with their Civil War­-era ancestors. Join us in restoring thousands of records, and begin building your own family tree.


To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

For those who are interested in the project, please go to the website to get more details.

Hat tip to Yulanda Burgess for this information. FYI, Angela Y. Walton-Raji of the USCT Chronicle blog appears in the above video.

Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

Many people are concerned about the presence of this…
Image: Confederate Battle Flag
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

…but many more should be concerned about the relative absence of this.
Image: African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial–the multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War–is just about over. There are already discussions about commemorating the Reconstruction Era, which followed the war. For example, the National Park Service is considering the development of sites that will memorialize Reconstruction Era events.

But recent controversies over the Confederate Battle Flag (see here and here and here, for example) suggest that the job of properly commemorating the war in our public and private spaces is not yet done.

I understand how and why the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) is such a lightening rod for debate and dispute. But my own concern is not with the presence of the CBF on public or other spaces. I am concerned about the relative absence of memorials, monuments and other objects that reflect the roles and experiences of African Americans during the American Civil War. This is something that we Americans need to talk about, and hopefully, address with collective action.

There are easily hundreds of, if not over a thousand, statues, monuments and other objects that commemorate the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, these objects feature white soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The Civil War era presence of African Americans on the “commemorative landscape,” as many call it, is inadequate, if not woefully so.

This situation is a result of our history. Nine out of ten Civil War era African Americans lived in the Union and Confederate slave states, which were considered “the South.” After the Reconstruction Era, which saw many advances toward racial equality, the South devolved into a state of racial supremacy for whites, and racial subjugation for African Americans. Political, financial, and social conditions inhibited or even prevented African Americans from creating memorials that fairly depicted their wartime experience. The result was a commemorative landscape in which Civil War era black folks were out of sight and out of mind. Someone raised in the South prior to this century could look at the commemorative landscape of the era and easily (and wrongly) conclude that black people were a negligible and inconsequential part of the war.

Things have gotten better. For example, since the 1989 movie Glory, over a dozen or more monuments to black Civil War soldiers have been installed. (A review of monuments to African American Civil War soldiers is here.) But much more needs to be done. In way too many places, children of all backgrounds are growing up in a commemorative environment where the back presence in the Civil War in under-represented, or even unrepresented. We have the power to fix that.

The following are just are a few suggestions for new memorials that depict various aspects of the Civil War history of African Americans. The list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start. If anyone has their own suggestions to offer, feel free to note them in the comments section below. I hope this becomes part of a conversation about creating a commemorative landscape that fully and truly reflects the richness and diversity of the Civil War experience.

So, here we go:

1) No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.

Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

2) When the Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress made it clear: the Union had no intent of disturbing the institution of slavery where it stood. Why? At the least, they hoped to maintain the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded and joined the Confederacy. At best, they hoped that the Confederate states, secure in the promise that slavery was safe, would return to the Union, thereby avoiding a war. (Note that, Lincoln was adamant that slavery would not spread to the western territories – a policy stance that the secessionists found unacceptable.)

But the slaves had their own agenda. They saw the war as an opportunity for freedom. On May 23, 1861 – just weeks after the war began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe.

The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had no duty to return the slaves; in fact, by Union policy, he should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy.

Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

The contraband policy, which gave bondsmen asylum from slavery in return for their providing labor to the Union, eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Proclamation might never have happened if not for the three brave men who took the risk of liberating themselves and seeking aid and comfort with their master’s enemy. We need a monument outside of Fort Monroe, which still stands, to commemorate their actions and those of Gen. Benjamin Butler. Continue reading

Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans

A Bit of History partial Thomas Waterman copy
“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… (the) medical problems (of previously enslaved Union veterans) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.

Missouri abolishes slavery, January 11, 1865; later, black Missouri soldiers found Lincoln University

An Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri, 1865
From here: “This ink on vellum document signed by the members of Missouri’s 1865 Constitutional Convention enacted the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in Missouri. It was signed on January 11, 1865, three weeks before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery, was even proposed.”
Image source: Missouri History Museum Archives, via the website “The Civil War in Missouri”

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Of note was that the proclamation would only be effective for states in “rebellion against the United States,” namely, the Confederate States that had seceded from, and were fighting against, the Union during the American Civil War.

Not covered by the proclamation were several slave states – the so-called ‘Border States’ of Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky – which stayed loyal to the Union and had had not seceded. In those states, bondage remained unabated.

This was not for lack of effort by Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in the Border States. Lincoln believed that Border State slavery posed a risk for the Union. His fear was that their slaveholders might agitate for secession and alliance with the Confederacy, in order to protect their slave property. Lincoln hoped to eliminate this threat by having the Border States end slavery voluntarily. In March 1862, Lincoln asked Congress to pass a resolution to provide “pecuniary aid” to any Border State that would “adopt gradual abolishment of slavery.”

In July, 1862, President Lincoln met with congressman and senators from the Border States and personally asked them to implement a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation. He said at the meeting:

The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution (slavery) in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of its value is gone already.

How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it. How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another’s throats.

Lincoln’s message to the Border States was clear: the Civil War was going to put pressure on the institution of slavery, and perhaps even lead to its demise. Why not end slavery in your states now, and get compensated for it, while the government still has the money to afford such a plan? If this plan is not accepted now, and the war does end slavery, you’ll lose everything and get noting in return.

Lincoln was right in his prediction. The “friction of war” did indeed destabilize bondage throughout all of the slave states, Union and Confederate. In Missouri, for example, thousands of slaves escaped their master as fighting raged throughout the state. At least 8,300, black Missourians – mostly former slaves – joined the Union army, gaining freedom for themselves in the process. (Slaves who joined the US army were given the status of freemen.)

The issue of gradual, compensated emancipation became a subject of discussion and debate within Missouri. In 1863, a state convention was held, and an ordinance for gradual emancipation, to begin in 1870, was passed. But for some Missourians, emancipation starting in 1870 wasn’t soon enough. The so-called “Radical Republicans” of the state – members of Lincoln’s political who party were ardent anti-slavery men – agitated for a policy of immediate emancipation.

As the war wore on, the Radicals gained increasing political power in Missouri, and they used it to finally end bondage in their state. In January 1865, another state convention was called to order. As noted here: “Led by Charles Drake, the Radical Republicans who made up the majority of the state convention’s delegates passed the vote for emancipation almost unanimously.” Although the convention abolished slavery effective January 11, 1865, it “did not give the right to vote to any of the more than 100,000 slaves freed in Missouri. Although the state convention’s delegates believed strongly in emancipation, they did not necessarily believe in equality.”

With freedom in hand, and despite efforts to limit their progress, African Americans pressed forward to take advantage of whatever opportunities they could. They recalled that in 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, the law “was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This so-called “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.

Black soldiers and veterans were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that freedmen and freedwomen would receive the education and learning that were denied to the under slavery. Men from two regiments of black Union soldiers – the 62nd and 65th infantry regiments of United States Colored Troops – took an unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.

Located in Jefferson City, Missouri, that school stands as a legacy of African Americans’ efforts for improvement, progress, and full citizenship. Its name: Lincoln University of Missouri.

Main statue for the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri
Source: Lincoln University, Missouri