Restoring the honors to Afro-Union soldiers
In a quiet corner of Chesapeake, Va., lies hallowed ground that had been mostly forgotten over the years. Tucked away in an isolated part of the populous Hampton Roads area, Cuffey-town cemetery is the final resting place for some of Virginia’s Afro-Union soldiers who donned blue coats to fight for freedom nearly 150 years ago.
“For many years, it was a small country cemetery,” said H.O. Brown, a member of DAV Chapter 41 in Portsmouth, Va. “It was run down and mostly abandoned.”
Several years ago, members from DAV Chapters in Richmond, Norfolk, Suffolk and Portsmouth began working to return the cemetery to its hallowed status. “A couple of years ago we joined the renovation project to make this cemetery a showplace for the contributions of those disenfranchised Americans who fought to win their own freedom,” said Brown. “We made donations and worked on clean-up projects at the cemetery to make it a site of honor.”
“It is heartwarming that the men and women of the DAV work to preserve the history and the honor of veterans,” said National Commander Bradley S. Barton. “Our nation must remember the courage and sacrifice of those who have served with honor, and the work of these Chapters maintains that resolve.”
Cuffeytown/Long Ridge is the oldest continuous community of “free” Africans in Virginia. Its men served in the Revolutionary War and more that 250 volunteered during the Civil War. “Cuffeytown historic cemetery has 13 Civil War veterans buried there, the greatest number of Afro-Union Civil War soldiers buried in a private cemetery,” said historical interpreter E. Curtis Alexander.
Alexander is the curator who oversees the historical research and educational programs at the cemetery and has written extensively about the history of Afro-Union troops during the Civil War. He even has an ancestor buried there, his great-grandfather cavalry Sgt. March Corprew. Alexander’s leadership and the DAV’s support have transformed the rundown cemetery into a showplace which today includes a memorial for those Civil War soldiers and a visitors center featuring artifacts from that war. Another cemetery, on the grounds of the Naval Support Activity Northwest Annex in Chesapeake, now closed to the public for security reasons, is the final resting place of three more of Virginia’s Afro-Union veterans.
“This is good history,” said Brown. “The DAV has been working with Dr. Alexander for two years to give the cemeteries the historic recognition that they deserve. We had two young visitors who didn’t know that African-Americans fought in the Civil War. It really impressed them.”
“The cemeteries have eight generations of descendents who put flags on the graves of their ancestors,” said Alexander. “You get a sense of the obligation of history after you have visited there. The cemeteries are important not only to decedents, but to people who are part of the history of this area and have an obligation to learn from this history.”
Some of the men who fought against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia lay here–members of the United States Colored Troops who served and sacrificed in those terrible times. Their list of battles is extensive. They were outnumbered two to one as they fought and died in their first battle at Wilson’s Wharf, turning back the Confederate cavalry and keeping the vital James River in the hands of the Union. The U.S. Colored Troops fought their way into North Carolina in December 1863 to free as many as 3,000 slaves. “It was the first battle in the entire Civil War to free slaves,” said Alexander. Later they shed their blood at the Battle of Suffolk, Chaffin Farm-New Market Heights and other battlefields.
During the Civil War, nearly 210,000 Afro-Union troops enlisted. From Vicksburg to Petersburg and finally Appomattox, more than 38,000 died in battle and many more succumbed to illness and disease. They fought with outdated, sometimes inoperable weapons, and with faulty ammunition. On two occasions faced with defeat, they were not permitted to surrender and were massacred. They received no quarter from the enemy, while their own army paid them less than half of what white soldiers received.
Despite the dangers and inequities, Afro-Union soldiers fought with valor. The Medal of Honor was presented to 24 who served in the Union Army and Navy, including 14 members of the U.S. Colored Troops at the Battle for Chaffin Farm-New Market Heights near Richmond, Va., on Sept. 29, 1864.
Commander of the Army of the James Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler said in his farewell address on Jan. 18, 1865: “With the bayonet you have unlocked the iron barred gates of prejudice, opening new fields of freedom, liberty and equality of rights to yourselves and your race forever.”
Alexander says Butler was incredibly important to the struggle by black troops. “He gave them the opportunity to fight and to prove themselves as men and soldiers,” he said. “Other commanders were not as high on black troops. He made it very clear in his writings that many men fought with bravery and valor, but were not credited because they were black.”
It was Butler who led the fight to create a medal specifically to honor U.S. Colored Troops for their bravery and valor.
Afro-Union troops returned from war suffering from the same disabilities as white soldiers, but lacked the same rights. It would be years before they could vote and beyond their lifetimes before true equality would evolve.
“The most amazing fact about the struggle of the Afro-Union soldiers during the Civil War is that they had to fight both the enemy from within and the enemy from without, before, during and after the war,” said Alexander.
“We’re talking about a group of men who had to fight for the right to fight,” he said. “People aren’t aware the Union Army wasn’t open to Africans until after May 22, 1863, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“There is no doubt that we should learn from the lives of these men,” said Alexander. “We need to keep working not only to maintain the cemetery, but to keep their history alive.”
Today, the cemetery is the home of the Unknown and Known Afro-Union Civil War Soldiers Memorial, which commemorates the sacrifices of those soldiers.
“This cemetery salutes African-American soldiers,” said Brown. “These were free black men who fought for their country during a very difficult war, and they fought it in the South.”
Over the decades, they have been joined in the cemetery by veterans of subsequent wars as the price of freedom continues to be paid regardless of the color of a soldier’s skin.
They have shared your nightly vigils,
They have shared your daily toil;
And their blood with yours commingling
Has enriched the Southern soil,
They have slept and marched and suffered
Neath the same dark skies as you,
They have met as fierce a foeman,
And have been as brave and true.
Excerpt from The Colored Soldiers by Paul Laurence Dunbar
COPYRIGHT 2007 Disabled American Veterans
COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group