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.
Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.
Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.
My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.
They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…
On Tuesday, February 23, occurred the death of one of the race’s most noted characters, General Robert Smalls, in his seventy-sixth year of age. He had been sick for about ten months at his home on Prince street, and all the members of the family were around the bedside when the end came.
Born in Beaufort on April 5, 1839, he was a river pilot by profession. During the civil war he was used as pilot by the Confederates on a privateer, the Planter, which had been fitted out as a gunboat.
On May 13, 1862, Pilot Smalls took the Planter, which was being used as the special dispatch boat of General Ripley, the Confederate post commander at Charleston, from the wharf at which she was lying and carried her out of the Charleston harbor, under the Confederate guns, and delivered the vessel to Captain Nichols of the Federal ship Onward, one of the fleet of Federal ships blockading Charleston harbor at the time. He was put in charge of the gunboat Crusader as pilot, serving also on the Planter, and was in charge of the vessels during many engagements with Confederate forces, both naval and land. He was pilot on board the monitor Keokuk when that vessel was struck ninety-six times in the attack on Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863, sinking the next morning, just after Smalls and the crew had been taken off.
Saved Vessel When Captain Deserted Post
In December, 1863, Smalls was on the deck of the Planter, which was being piloted by Captain Nickerson. While passing through Folly Island Creek the Confederate batteries at Secessionville opened a hot fire on the vessel.
Nickerson deserted the pilot house and hid himself in the coal bunkers. When Smalls discovered that the captain had deserted the pilot house in a panic he took command of the boat and piloted her out of reach of the guns.