Today is the 153rd anniversary of the liberation of Richmond, Virginia, by Union forces during America’s Civil War, 1861-1865. The first soldiers to enter Richmond were the “colored” regiments of the Union Army, ranks formed of free and formerly enslaved African-Americans.
Our own ancestors were a part of this collective sacrifice and struggle for freedom, escaping slavery where they were held in bondage, and serving with the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 36th, and 37th Regiments of the United States Colored Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry, and as domestics, laundresses, and messengers in and around Union camps and hospitals. This post reflects just a few of the sites I’ve visited over the years that chronicle the long road to freedom.
The Lumpkin’s Jail Site and the African Burial Ground (ca. 1750-1816)
Lumpkin’s Jail was owned by Robert Lumpkin, who maximized profits in his compound by including lodging for slave traders, a slave holding facility, an auction house, and a residence for his family. A port city with water, ground and rail connections, Richmond was linked to slave buying markets such as Charleston and New Orleans. Enslaved Africans referred to Lumpkin’s Jail as ‘the Devil’s Half Acre,’ reflecting the despair and anger of people separated forever from their families. However, Mary Lumpkin, a black woman who was Robert’s widow, boosted post-Civil War black education when, in 1867, she rented the complex to a Christian school, which evolved into Virginia Union University.” — Richmond Slave Trail historical wayside marker
This Burial Ground for Negroes (ca. 1750-1816), reclaimed as Richmond’s African Burial Ground, is the oldest municipal cemetery for enslaved and free Blacks known to have existed in the Richmond area, and may be among the oldest in the entire country.
This is the final resting place for many of the Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in chains from West and Central Africa, as well as for people of African descent born in Virginia. While disrespected, exploited and terribly abused in their lifetimes, their forced, unpaid labor established an economic basis for the development not only of Richmond, Virginia, and the South, but also contributed to the United States as a whole. Because of Richmond’s central role in this country’s internal slave trade, descendants of those buried here can likely be found throughout North America…
This Burial Ground also was the site of the Town Gallows, where Virginia’s young freedom-fighting hero Gabriel of the nearby Prosser plantation was executed on Oct. 10, 1800, for his role in attempting to lead a mass rebellion against slavery. Courageously, Gabriel planned a coup against Virginia’s government. He established methodology from observing the American Revolution and the triumphs of enslaved Africans in Haiti. Gabriel and 25 other enslaved Africans were executed here or in three other locations after courts convicted them for their roles in the conspiracy. In 2007, Governor Timothy M. Kaine pardoned Gabriel, saying, ‘Gabriel’s cause – the end of slavery and furtherance of equality of all people – has prevailed in the light of history.’ – African Burial Ground historical wayside marker
Charleston, South Carolina
Denmark Vesey, Slave Rebellion Organizer
Born ca. 1767-July 2, 1822
Denmark Vesey, previously named Telemaque was born either in Africa or on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. At the age of 14, he was purchased by the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey and transported to the French Colony of St. Domingue, where the young African was sold along with 389 other slaves. Claimed to be suffering from epilepsy by his new owner, Denmark was returned to Captain Vesey.
The young man accompanied Captain Vesey on many trading voyages as part of the crew. In 1783, immediately after the American Revolution, Captain Vesey relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where Denmark continued to serve him for approximately another 17 years. In 1799, however, Denmark won $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery of Charleston and purchased his freedom for $600.
Denmark Vesey was a highly skilled carpenter and well known within free black and slave society. According to his contemporaries, he harbored frustration at his inability to legally free his wife and children. His antislavery sentiments may have received a wider audience when in 1818 enslaved and free black Charlestonians established a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church where he served as a class leader.
Vesey envisioned a community where all would be free, but recently passed state legislation of 1820 made legal emancipation of slaves nearly impossible. Furthermore, municipal authorities repeated attacks on the AME Church convinced Vesey slavery was such a violation of God’s law that rebellion was necessary to obtain liberty. He placed his own life at risk as he dared to plan to recruit others to achieve the goal of freedom.
Vesey and his lieutenants “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, Peter Poyas, and Monday Gell developed a plan for a revolt which may have involved thousands of followers. Their war of liberation was originally planned for July 14, 1822, and called for conspirators to seize weapons and set fires around the city. Once reinforced by rural slaves, as many as possible were to escape by ship to Haiti where African people had already abolished slavery and formed an independent nation. According to Congregational minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the plan was the “most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves.”
When two slaves informed the authorities of the plot, the conspirators tried to move the date to June 16, but their plan failed. Arrests and trials followed and beginning on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day, Vesey and 34 of his compatriots were hanged. This figure represents the greatest number of slave conspiracy related executions in American history. 37 were banished, most outside the United States, and four whites were briefly fined and incarcerated for sympathizing with the conspirators. To strengthen security the authorities demolished the AME Church, and the state legislature imposed rigorous new laws, including the Negro Seaman Acts subjecting free black sailors from outside the state to arrest when their ships docked in Carolina ports. Free black men were required to have white guardians, and those that left the state were barred from returning. By the mid-1820s, the city fortified itself with an arsenal and barracks. In 1842, the Military College of South Carolina, now known as The Citadel, was established on that same site.
Despite daunting opposition, Vesey’s Sprit and liberating vision did not die. He became an inspiring symbol of freedom for later abolitionists including David Walker, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His resolve demonstrates the timeless universality of men and women’s desire for freedom and justice, irrespective of race, creed, condition, or color.
Beaufort County, South Carolina
Grave of Robert Smalls, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery
Born a slave in Beaufort in 1839, Robert Smalls lived to serve as a Congressman of the United States. In 1862, he commandeered and delivered to Union forces the Confederate gunboat ‘Planter,’ on which he was a crewman. His career as a freeman included service as a delegate to the 1868 and 1895 State Constitutional Conventions, election to the S. C. House and Senate, and 9 years in Congress.” – Historical marker, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, South Carolina.
Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina
Harriet Ann Jacobs and the Maritime Underground Railroad
Runaways depended on maritime blacks (African-Americans). During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seaman. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferryman, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready market for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens, and other potential collaborators.
It was this maritime culture that assisted Harriet Jacobs in her escape from Edenton by sea in 1842. In her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), Jacobs describes how the Edenton African American community, including black seaman, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia. — Maritime Underground Railroad historical wayside marker
The Tiffin Tribune (Ohio), April 6, 1865
Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia
Remarkable and Gratifying – The announcement that General Weitzel had captured Richmond has a peculiar interest for Cincinnatians, be-cause this gallant officer is a native of that city; but another feature of the event has a more general interest. His corps is composed of colored troops, and a large proportion of these were slaves, men who had es-caped from the lash and exchanged their shackles for muskets. The Confederacy proposed to found itself upon slavery. This institution was its chief cornerstone. Richmond was the center of the slave aristocracy, the heart of the rebellion. Now imagine the slave-drivers, with their garments gathered up about them, moving double-quick out at one side of the city, as their former slaves, with heads erect, guns in hand, and powder dry, marched in at the other, under the national emblem, to the music of the Union, and a picture is presented of humiliation and retribution on one hand, and triumph on the other, that is worthy of being transferred to canvas. The feelings of the chivalric men and high strung women on that occasion may be imagined; no pen could de-scribe them. It was a remarkable event, and one that will gratify the loyal people, and receive a special page in history.
Garland H. White, Chaplain. 28th U. S. Colored Infantry
Letter, April 12, 1865
I have just returned from the city of Richmond, my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I retired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.
Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out of the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.
We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. IN camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for [one] by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was brought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questions as follows:
“What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Garland H. White.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Where was you born?”
“In Hanover County, in this State.”
“Where was you sold from?”
“From this city.”
“What was the name of the man who bought you?”
“Where did he live?”
“In the State of Georgia.”
“Where did you leave him?”
“Where did you go then?”
“Where do you live now?”
“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”
I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnesses several such scenes among the other colored regiments.
Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentleman of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think that they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted the order of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Calvary, colored, were still dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.
(Garland H. White) “Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28 U. S. C. T. – better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers…“
(Garland H. White) Some people do not seem to know that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and I am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.
African-American Civil War Correspondent
The white soldiers, when orders for advancing were passed along the line, were posted nearer Richmond than the negroes. But, with that prompt obe-dience to orders that has never made the discipline of the blacks the pride of their officers, they soon passed over their own and the rebel works, and took the Osborne road directly for the city. When within a few miles of the city I heard Gen. Kautz give the order to Gen. Draper to take the left-hand side of the road, that Devin’s division might pass by. Gen. Draper obeyed the order implicitly, and, in order that he might not be in the way with his brigade, put it upon a double-quick, and never stopped until it entered the limits of the city. The colored troops had orders not to pass through the city, but to go around it and man the inner fortifications. When Devin’s division came within the outskirts of the city, and marched by General Draper’s bri-gade, who had stacked their arms, and whose drum corps was playing na-tional airs, they were loudly cheered by the colored troops, and they failed to respond, either from exhaustion or a want of courtesy. To Gen. Draper belongs the credit of having the first organization enter the city, and none are better acquainted with this fact than the officers of the divi-sion who are claiming the undeserved honor. Gen. Draper’s brigade is composed of the 22nd, 36th, and 118th U. S. colored troops, the 36th being the first to enter Richmond.
Wilmington, North Carolina
1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Company D, 37th U. S. Colored Infantry
Address before the J. C. Abbott Post, Grand Army of the Republic
Wilmington, North Carolina, 1884
Why are over 50,000 colored soldiers laying beneath the sod to-day? Why are their bones bleaching in the dust to night? For the privileges we are enjoying to-day. Civil rights, political rights, soldiers’ and sailors’ rights, and religious rights; and we propose to protect those rights, let come what will or may. Let weal or woe, let us survive or perish, we will maintain those rights.
Washington, District of Columbia
The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum