Contrabands during the Civil War
Shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, federal troops occupied Alexandria to prevent the Confederate forces from seizing the city, which was a strategic transportation hub. At about the same time, General Benjamin Franklin Butler began sheltering self-emancipated enslaved persons as “contraband of war” at Fort Monroe in Hampton, setting in motion a series of events that led to official policies protecting formerly enslaved persons who escaped to Union lines. The result was an influx of refugees from slavery, who were known as “contrabands,” into Union encampments such as Alexandria. The Alexandria Gazette reported on May 19, 1862, “The number of ‘contrabands’ from the neighboring counties in Virginia, increases daily in this place. They already occupy several houses. Some of them are in destitute circumstances.”
Many of these refugees had walked for miles with no food or shelter and were sick or malnourished when they arrived in Alexandria, where housing was scarce. By September 1862 the Alexandria Gazette reported that they were “over a thousand deserted and neglected” refugees in the city, many “huddled together in old slave pens in the rudest kind of shanties, under trees and ragged canvas coverings, many times without food, necessary clothing or beds.” In December, the Alexandria Gazette reported that 185 refugees had died in the city and been buried by authorities, most in Penny Hill, the city’s public cemetery.
Freedpeople Assisting the War Effort
By autumn of 1863, the population of Alexandria had exploded to 18,000 from its prewar total of 10,000. Many of the freedpeople who came to the city were employed by the U.S. government to assist with the war effort by building barracks, railroads, and fortifications. Others joined the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The refugees also worked as painters, woodcutters, gravediggers, longshoremen, cooks, nurses, and domestic servants as Alexandria became an important supply depot and hospital center for the United States Army. Housing conditions remained poor, however, and wartime rations sparse. Smallpox and typhoid outbreaks occurred regularly. A small “pest house” was built at the south end of the city to house smallpox patients, and a cemetery soon began to fill up around it.
Harriet Jacobs and Refugees Fleeing Enslavement
The Reverend Albert Gladwin, a Baptist minister from Connecticut, was appointed the superintendent of contrabands to assist the resettlement efforts as the government struggled to provide for the influx of refugees. Gladwin’s tenure would prove controversial. Harriet Jacobs, who worked as an agent in Alexandria for a Quaker relief charity, frequently clashed with him over his treatment of the freedpeople, including his habit of separating families in his hurry to move them to official refugee camps and his policy of charging rent for living in government facilities. A report by members of the Quaker charity who visited Alexandria agreed with Jacobs’s assessment that he was “[h]arsh and tyrannical to the people under his charge.”
The Contraband and Freeman’s Cemetery
Approximately 1,250 deaths were recorded among Alexandria’s African American population between the spring of 1862 and February 1864. As deaths continued to mount, both the small cemetery near the pest house and Penny Hill filled up. At Gladwin’s suggestion, in January 1864, General John Slough, the military governor of Alexandria, confiscated an undeveloped lot from Francis L. Smith, a prominent lawyer and Confederate sympathizer who had fled to Richmond, to be used as a burial ground. (Slough had already confiscated Smith’s elaborate Italianate villa as his headquarters.) The site was about one and one-half acres on the southern edge of town across from St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the confluence of Hunting Creek and the Potomac River.
Burials began on March 7, 1864, under Gladwin’s supervision. Gladwin was responsible for recording the deaths of freedmen and assisting families with funeral arrangements, including dispatching a hearse to collect the deceased. Families were responsible for burial costs, unless they were indigent, in which case fees would be waived. The U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Department supplied pine coffins at a price of $2.50 to $5.00 depending on the size. Graves were marked with simple whitewashed, wooden grave markers with the name of the deceased in black lettering, although some families supplied stone markers. The cemetery was enclosed with a white picket fence. The Reverend Eliphalet Owen, who was Gladwin’s secretary, performed many of the funeral services, assisted by Rev. Leland Warring and Rev. Peter Washington. The head gravedigger was Randall Ward, a freedman from Spotsylvania County who as a teenager was enslaved by William Alexander Winston, a cousin of Dolley Madison. Ward was assisted by two gravediggers: Thomas Johnson and Hezekiah Ages, who had been enslaved nearby in Fairfax County.
Julia Wilbur, a Quaker abolitionist who worked with Harriet Jacobs providing relief services to the refugees in Alexandria, visited the cemetery on April 12, 1864. She noted in her diary that it was a vast improvement over Penny Hill, a “repulsive & heathenish looking place” where freedpeople had been buried two and three to a grave. She recorded that sixty-five people had been buried so far and wrote, “It is as good a spot as could be obtained.”
Initially, Gladwin decided to bury deceased members of the USCT in the Freedmen’s cemetery, although Alexandria Quartermaster Captain J. G. C. Lee argued that they should be buried with their white comrades in Soldier’s Cemetery (now Alexandria National Cemetery). Gladwin reportedly went so far as to arrest one of Lee’s drivers who was transporting a deceased soldier in a funeral procession to Soldier’s Cemetery. In December 1864, approximately 450 USCT soldiers who were recovering at L’Ouverture Hospital, the city’s hospital for Black patients, signed a petition requesting that Black soldiers “share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color.” Within a day, the Quartermaster General in Washington approved their request, marking the first successful civil rights protest in Alexandria. Approximately 118 members of the USCT were disinterred from the Freedmen’s Cemetery and reburied with full military honors in Soldier’s Cemetery.
Gladwin’s controversial tenure as supervisor of contrabands ended with his termination in 1865.
The Freedmen’s Cemetery after the Civil War
After the war, Francis Smith reclaimed his lot and attempted to sell it back to the U.S. government, which was not interested in purchasing the property. Upon his death in 1877, he bequeathed the property to his widow, Sarah Gosnell Vowell Smith. She unsuccessfully sought government compensation for the use of the land as a cemetery. In 1917, their heir, Margaret V. Smith, donated the property to the Diocese of Richmond, which owns St. Mary’s Cemetery across the street. By this time, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. In 1892, the Washington Post reported that “the owners have been allowing the neighboring brickyards to dig clay from the outer edges of the graveyard with which to make bricks. This digging, seconded by heavy rains, has resulted in unearthing many coffins and skeletons and leaving the outer graves in very bad condition.” The fence surrounding what the paper called the “old contraband graveyard” was gone and the wooden grave markers had decayed.
In 1946, at the Diocese of Richmond’s request, the property, which now fronted the new Mount Vernon Memorial Highway connecting Alexandria to George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, was rezoned for commercial use and sold by Bishop Peter L. Ireton. A gas station was erected on a portion of the lot in 1955, and in 1959 a store and an apartment building were erected on the remaining portion. As late as 1939, city maps still identified the property as a “Negro Cemetery,” and in the 1950s local children referred to it as the “old cemetery lot,” but with the new construction, the Freedmen’s Cemetery faded from memory. By the late twentieth century it had been largely forgotten.
In 1987, T. Michael Miller, a historian with the Office of Historic Alexandria, unearthed a reference to the Freedmen’s Cemetery in the Alexandria Gazette that reawakened contemporary interest in the site. Pamela Cressey, the city archeologist for Alexandria, located a 1860/1870 Alexandria City map showing the location of the contraband graveyard adjacent to the Catholic cemetery, confirming the existence of the Freedmen’s Cemetery. When plans were made to rebuild the nearby Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the cemetery grounds were explored in 1996 with remote-sensing equipment that confirmed the existence of graves. This led to a period of archeological excavation of the site to map the boundaries of cemetery and the location and condition of graves, some of which had been destroyed or damaged by the commercial development of the property.
Dedication of the Contrabands and Freedom Cemetery Memorial
In 1997, Lillie Finklea and Louise Massoud, who lived near the Freedmen’s Cemetery, founded Friends of the Freedmen’s Cemetery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, commemorating, and researching the burial ground. In 2000, the organization secured an official Virginia state highway marker for the cemetery, and it collaborated with the City of Alexandria and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project to plan a memorial park for the site. In 2007, with its purchase by the City of Alexandria, the cemetery returned to public ownership, and the gas station and buildings on the site were demolished, while the remaining graves were left intact. The cemetery was rededicated on May 12, 2007, with a ceremony featuring speeches and poems, African drummers, and the lighting of luminaries representing each of the burials of freedmen.
The Gladwin Record and Finding Descendants
In 1995, Wesley Pippenger, a research historian, discovered what is known as the Gladwin Record at the Library of Virginia. The Book of Records Containing the Marriages and Deaths that have Occurred within the Official Jurisdiction of Rev. A Gladwin is the ledger book kept by Gladwin’s office of marriages and deaths among the freedpeople of Alexandria. It was begun in March 1863 by Gladwin’s clerk Eliphalet Owen, maintained throughout Gladwin’s tenure as superintendent of contrabands, and continued by the Freedmen’s Bureau until the cemetery closed in January 1869. The Gladwin Record provides an important historical record of the individuals who were buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery, including their name, the date they were reported dead or buried, their age, their next of kin, their residence, and, in some cases, the cause of death. It also provides records for some of the estimated 1,200 African Americans who died in and around Alexandria before the cemetery opened and were buried at Penny Hill or other sites.
People Connected to the Freedmen’s Cemetery
In 2008, the Office of Historic Alexandria and the Alexandria Black History Museum hired genealogist Char McCargo Bah to locate descendants of those buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery. Bah cross-referenced names in the Gladwin Record with names of African American families in Alexandria and with information from Alexandria city directories, U.S. Census records, and other archival sources. She was able to locate 171 descendent families out of 1,711 recorded burials. Among those was the Harris family. Julia Harris was three years old when she was buried on September 29, 1866, at the Freedmen’s Cemetery. Her twelve-hour-old infant sibling was buried on February 22, 1868. (According to the Gladwin Record, more than half of those buried at the Freedman’s Cemetery are children, reflecting the high childhood mortality rates of the era.) They were the children of Mary Harris, who, with her daughters Rosa and Emma, had walked from Prince William County to Alexandria during the Civil War. Rosa Harris married twice, first to William B. Jackson and later to William F. Armstead. Rosa Harris Jackson Armstead had seven children and became a property owner and a deaconess at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Alexandria. Her daughter Rosa L. Armstead migrated to New Jersey and in 1930 settled in New York with her husband, Jacob Lawrence. They had a son named Jacob Lawrence who became a nationally acclaimed painter, well known for his portrayal of African American historical subjects and contemporary life. Rosa Harris Jackson Armstead’s great-granddaughter, Judy Coles Bailey, MD, pursued a career in medicine.
The Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial
In 2008, Alexandria conducted a competition to select a design for a permanent memorial at the Freedmen’s Cemetery. The winning design was by architect C. J. Howard, of Alexandria. On September 6, 2014, the Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery Memorial was dedicated to the memory of the Alexandria freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the city. The memorial features Mario Chiodo’s sculpture The Path of Thorns and Roses, an allegorical depiction of the struggle for African American freedom, and bas-reliefs depicting the flight to freedom created by local sculptor Joanna Blake.
The dedication event, and pre-ceremonial events held earlier in the year, were attended by a number of descendent families, some coming from as far away as California. The ceremony concluded with the reading of the names of the ancestors whose descendants were in attendance, including Judy Coles Bailey, MD, Rosa Harris Jackson Armstead’s great-granddaughter, with a bell tolled in remembrance for each.