Virginia Civil War
Black History Sites
The experience of African-Americans during the Civil War is extraordinarily rich and often contradictory. Nowhere are those stories, in their variety, better told than in Virginia.
In Virginia, blacks were slaves and they were soldiers. Free blacks and bondsmen manned the iron works and helped build the fortifications around Richmond. Other blacks, wearing Union blue, attacked those same fortifications in September 1864, winning 14 Medals of Honor on the way.
Nearly every museum dedicated to the study of the Civil War in Virginia includes some black history. The national parks, especially the Richmond National Battlefield Park and the Petersburg National Battlefield, highlight the role of United States Colored Troops (USCT), who fought during the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg (including a significant role in the Battle of the Crater). The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond acknowledges the role of African-Americans in the southern states and includes black-life interpretations in summer living history programs.
Virginia Civil War Trails interpretation throughout the state tells stories of the African-American experience in the Civil War:
- In Tidewater Virginia, learn of Union Gen. Benjamin Butler's action in 1861, while at Hampton's Fort Monroe, to accept and employ runaway slaves as "contraband of war." That controversial policy opened the door to emancipation. Many blacks who eventually served with the Union army are buried in Norfolk's Elmwood Cemetery under a monument to their service.
- A Northern Virginia trail site, Freedman's Village in Arlington, explains what happened to some of those who escaped slavery. Many village residents, along with members of the USCT, are buried in a special section at nearby Arlington Cemetery.
- In Virginia's Valley & Mountains region, USCT troops played a significant role in the Battle of Saltville in October 1864. There, as in other Virginia battles, evidence exists that Confederate troops killed black prisoners.
- In Central Virginia, Stops on the Overland Campaign trail include Baylor's Farm in Hopewell, where black soldiers took a leading role on the road to Petersburg in June 1864, and Deep Bottom in Henrico County, where USCT crossed the James River to assault Richmond defenses at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer (part of the Richmond park's Fort Harrison unit) a few months later.
- Outnumbered black troops successfully defended a James River outpost located on the property of Sherwood Forest Plantation in May 1864.
There is no evidence that black Confederate troops ever were mustered officially into military service. However, blacks were preparing for entry into the Confederate army in March 1865. Witnesses saw black Confederate recruits drilling on Richmond's Capitol Square.
Those black Confederates may have been the ones captured during Lee's Retreat to Appomattox. A total of 36 blacks were surrendered with the Confederate army at Appomattox. All were listed as cooks, teamsters, musicians and other non-soldier roles.
More about African-American involvement during Lee's Retreat is covered in a brochure of the Virginia's Retreat group, which is available free at National Park sites in Petersburg, Appomattox and Richmond and at the Sailor's Creek State Park.
Black Union troops took the lead in the occupation of Petersburg and were among the first to enter the city of Richmond in 1865.