Convalescent Soldiers in LOuverture Hospital "Express Our Views" on Burial Location
Number 1 in the Freedmens Series of Documents of Alexandrias Freed People, produced by the Alexandria Black History Resource Center and Alexandria Archaeology, divisions of the City of Alexandrias Office of Historic Alexandria. Copyright 1997. Research and transcription by Timothy Dennee and Lillie Finklea.
An 1865 Quartermaster Department plan of L'Ouverture Hospital. Named for the hero of the Haitian Revolution, L'Ouverture was erected in the winter of 1863-1864 for the treatment of African American and American Indian soldiers. It replaced a makeshift segregated hospital near Washington and Wolfe Streets. Inset is an interior photograph of one of Alexandria's "white" hospital wards on Independence Day.
This document is transcribed from papers of the National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Entry 576, General Correspondence and Reports Relating to National and Post Cemeteries. It consists of two parts. The first is a letter written December 28, 1864 by Captain J.G.C. Lee, Assistant Depot Quartermaster at Alexandria, to Major General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General in Washington. Among other duties, Captain Lee was responsible for the burial of U.S. soldiers in the military cemetery at the west end of Wilkes Street in Alexandria. He requested General Meigs "early action in the matter" regarding the burial location of deceased African American soldiers.
Lee had understood his orders to require that all U.S. soldiers dying in Alexandria would be buried in the "Soldiers Cemetery" (now Alexandria National Cemetery). Yet, since May 1864, the Superintendent of Contrabands, a minister named Albert Gladwin, had been burying black soldiers in the Contraband Burying Ground, also known as Freedmens Cemetery. Gladwin had obtained an order from Military Governor Slough to continue to do so. Lee pointed out that this cemetery for African Americans was not owned or maintained by the U.S. government, and, not having been officially informed of Sloughs order, he began to direct all black burials to a separate section of the Soldiers Cemetery. According to Lee, Gladwin then took matters into his own hands by arresting Lees African American hearse driver (and apparently sending him to the slave pen jail for refusing to follow his orders) en route to a funeral, and sending the coffin he carried to the Freedmens Cemetery. The December 27 diary entry of Julia Wilbur, a New York abolitionist ministering to freed slaves, recorded that "Mr. Gladwin has buried 2 soldiers in Cold. Ground this P.M. Quite an excitement. The soldiers at [LOuverture Hospital] are furious, [and] refused to go as escort."
Lee was furious too, piqued by Gladwins high-handedness and prodded by the angry troops. To support his position, the captain forwarded with his letter a petition of the 443 African American soldiers recuperating at LOuverture Hospital. Originally addressed to Major Edwin Bentley, the hospitals Surgeon-in-Charge, the petition stated the mens choice of burial location as the Soldiers Cemetery: "We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our countries flag...."
Lees letter was later endorsed with General Meigs brief written memorandum of decision: all soldiers, including African Americans, could be buried in the Soldiers Cemetery until there was no longer space. After that, they could be interred at the National Cemetery at Arlington.
These papers help provide an explanation for what had been a perplexing question. Why are the gravestones for black soldiers who died between May 5 and mid-December 1864 (according to Gladwins death register) buried farther back in National Cemetery than those who died a short time later? Were these men disinterred from Freedmens Cemetery and then moved to the Alexandria National Cemetery? Lee states that "there are quite a number already in the contraband burying-ground but these could be removed very easily and without additional expense by the men who take care of the military cemetery." It appears that most indeed were re-interred, beginning January 6, 1865 and finishing January 21, perhaps with interruptions because of snowfall and freezing temperatures.
It is likely that the dispute led to Rev. Gladwins removal in mid-January 1865. The deaths of black soldiers ceased to be reported to the Superintendent of Contrabands until after a military officer, chaplain James Ferree, assumed Gladwins position.
With Captain Lees assistance, the 443 soldiers at LOuverture Hospital secured for themselves and their comrades the opportunity to "shair the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color." No more than 23 of the signatories of the petition had the misfortune to exercise this right. The gravestones of these and more than 200 other African Americans stand today in Alexandria National Cemetery as a testament to these men who "cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion." This cemetery is maintained by the Veterans Administration and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, many of the African American civilians who died seeking freedom, safety and employment in Alexandria still remain in unmarked graves covered with asphalt and built upon.
The following document provides 443 soldiers names. It should be noted that the names were not actual signatures, but were taken down by a handful of men circulating through the hospital wards. It is for this reason, and because of the low level of literacy among these mostly former slaves, that many of the names are obviously misspelled. Apparently, however, the petition was unanimous, and gives a full account of those being treated at one moment in time. These names can be added to and compared with those of the African American soldiers buried in Alexandria National Cemetery. We hope that others will study these men so that we may know them more fully as individuals and as a collective force for equal treatment.
This publication preserves, as much as possible, the format and spelling of the original document.
DEPOT QUARTERMASTER OFFICE
Alexandria, Va., December 28th 1864
Major General M.C. Meigs
Quartermaster General, U.S.A
I have the honor to transmit herewith copy of a letter written by me on the 24th inst., in relation to the interment of colored soldiers dying at the General Hospital here. I desire now to lay the facts before you more fully and, as my duties have been forcibly interfered with, would ask your early decision.
The U.S. Military Cemetery at this place has been purchased by this Dept. as a place of burial for soldiers. It has been handsomely improved and adorned, is systematically conducted by a superintendent and the necessary laborers.
Notifications of deaths in the various hospitals are sent to me in the usual way, they are recorded at the office, and the interments are made accordingly, the coffins, hearse, attendants, &c. being furnished by me. Headboards are placed at each grave and a careful record of the men in every particular.
I have recently learned that Mr. Gladwin, Superintendent of the Freedmen at this place has caused the interment of colored soldiers to be made at the contraband burying-ground. This ground is not owned by the U.S., is not fenced, as I learn, nor is it taken care of, as the regular cemetery is.
On learning this I directed that the interment of colored men, as well as white, be made in the military cemetery, keeping them in a separate portion. This has been done since then until Mr. Gladwin prevailed on Gen. Slough, Military Governor, to issue an order that they be interred at the contraband burying-ground. A copy of this order not being sent to me officially, I continued my duties, without conferring with Gen. Slough on the subject.
Yesterday however while the hearse and the escort were proceeding to the military cemetery, Mr. Gladwin and a party of soldiers arrested my driver, took him from my hearse and drove it where they pleased, the escort returning to the hospital. As might be expected, the most intense feeling on the part of officers was felt, that this man, a citizen, should be allowed to interfere.
I therefore called on Genl. Slough in regard to the matter and after explaining the position of affairs he requested me to get your orders in the matter, which should be final. He seemed to think that the only matter that stood in the way was that there are quite a number already in the contraband burying-ground but these could be removed very easily and without additional expense by the men who take care of the military cemetery.
It seems to have been the desire to have all soldiers in one place, as last winter I was required to disinter all in this neighborhood and Fairfax Seminary and have them brought to this place.
The feeling on the part of the colored soldiers is unanimous to be placed in the military cemetery and it seems but just and right that they should be. I therefore ask your early action in the matter.
Your Obt. Servant
Capt. A.Q.M. U.S.A.
P.S. I enclose a memorial received by me on this subject from the soldiers at Louverture General Hospital. J.G.C.L.
Louverture General Hospital,
Alexandria, Va. December 27, 1864
To Major Edwin Bentley,
Surgeon in Charge
Sir, we the undersigned Convalescents of Louverture Hospital & its Branches and soldiers of the U.S. army, learning that some dissatisfaction exists in relation to the burrial of colored soldiers, and feeling deeply interested in a matter of so great importance to us, who are a part and parcel with the white soldiers in this great struggle against rebellion, do hereby express our views, and ask for a consideration of the same.
We learn that the government has purchased ground to be used exclusively for Burrial of soldiers of the United States Army, and that the government has also purchased ground to be used for the burial of contrabands, or freedmen, so called, that the former is under the controll of Capt Lee, A.Q.M. U.S.A. The latter under the controll of Rev. A. Gladwin, Superintendent of Contrabands. We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army, we have cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.
As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should shair the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color,
To crush this rebellion, and establish civil, religious, & political freedom for our children, is the hight of our ambition. To this end we suffer, for this we fight, yea and mingle our blood with yours, to wash away a stain so black, and destroy a Plot so destructive to the interest and Properity of this nation, as soldiers in the U.S. Army. We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders, of our countries flag;
It has been said that the colored soldiers desire to be burried in the Contrabands Cemetary, we have never expressed such a desire, nor do we ask for any such distinction to be made, but in the more pertinant language of inspiration we would say, (Ruth 1:16-17) "Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go and where thou fightest I will fight, and where thou diest I will die, and there will I be burried," and for this, your humble petitionars will ever pray, the unaminous voice of our Soldiers was given, and their names herin enrolled,
6 Ward, Louverture Hospital
[Second or Tenth Ward?]
April 29th, 2007