Yes! A Statue for Virginia’s Black Union Troops

Detail from a statute to the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S.C.T. and its commander, Robert Gould Shaw.

Yes! Where can I donate? Richmond Councilwoman Kim Grey’s proposal in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch for a statute honoring the Civil War’s black Union troops from Virginia needs to be acted on promptly.  It should replace the one statue that does need to disappear off Monument Avenue, the one to Jefferson Davis.

In particular the proposal focuses on 14 Medal of Honor winners, seven Virginians, from a September 1864 battle near New Market Heights, part of Grant’s slow strangulation by siege of the Rebel capital.

If the purpose of the existing statues to the Secesh generals is history, then the full history need be told, the victor’s history. Tens of thousands of Virginians white and black remained loyal to the Union, passively or even actively opposing the Confederate government. A good example was Elizabeth Van Lew, a Church Hill matron whose exploits are reconstructed in “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy,”  by Elizabeth Varon.   The description of postwar Richmond politics is just as interesting.

Is there a plaque for Van Lew and her efforts anywhere in town? I’ve always wanted a statue to George H. Thomas, too, perhaps the highest-ranking Virginian in the Union Army at the end of the war, although he served mainly in western campaigns.

In the checkout line at Lowe’s yesterday I struck up a conversation with a man who commented on my sweatshirt with an Air Force theme. It turned out his father had been a Tuskegee Airman, in the bomber squadron rather than the more famed fighter unit. All Americans should take pride in the accomplishments of those airmen. More Americans desperately need to understand that free and enslaved persons of African heritage have been crucial to this country’s military success since the Revolution.

They were never more essential than in the War of the Rebellion (which is what they call The War of Northern Aggression in states to the north.) Absent their service and sacrifice, the Union might have been dissolved after all.

The 2020 General Assembly will have to address whether to grant localities full control over the war memorials on their public sites, and what to do with the locations under full state control.  The Lee Statue on Monument is state property, but the most obvious state-sponsored shrine to the Lost Cause resides in the old House Chamber of the State Capitol itself.

The memorials that I might stand in front of a bulldozer to protect are those to the common citizen-soldiers, the poor men in that rich man’s fight with their names listed outside county courthouses and city halls. They were not the political leadership which must take the blame for America’s most tragic war, and many were hardly volunteers.

Erase history? No. Show the full context and honor the Virginians on both sides. That is an easy yes. It was telling that the artist behind the new “Rumors of War” statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has come out against removing the Confederate statutes he was imitating (and gently mocking.) I suspect once the General Assembly does punt the issue to localities, the debate in Richmond will be more nuanced than you’d expect.

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26 responses to “Yes! A Statue for Virginia’s Black Union Troops”

  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    More facts and information is better than less. African Americans, both free and slaves, played an important role for the Union during the Civil War. Their memory needs to be honored more. This statute is a great idea.

    There were a number of Asians who fought in the Civil War as well. This includes sons of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous conjoined twins. The Bunkers served in the North Carolina cavalry.

    And, of course, Native American soldiers fought on both sides during the Civil War. Brevet Brigadier General Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca Tribe, drafted the Articles of Surrender at Appomattox. Confederate General Stand Watie, a member of the Cherokee Tribe, fought both Union and other Cherokee troops during the War. He was the last Confederate General to surrender.

    Let’s learn more of our history not less.

    1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

      I wonder if the sign and statue makers would be willing to add context to the monument? It would be of importance to recognize that USCT privates were paid only ten dollars a month with money withheld for uniforms and shoes. White privates were paid thirteen dollars a month with no money held for uniforms. USCT soldiers could advance to non commissioned ranks but could never hold real rank. These regiments were led by white officers only. When USCT privates died they were buried in segregated plots in national cemeteries and are among the most neglected graves in America. Context is needed to point out that black soldiers were often relegated to manual labor, guarding supplies, guarding prisoners, and other non combat roles. When used in battle it was often disastrous such as the Battle of the Crater. This all occurred while fighting under the stripes of the red, white, and blue flag not the Confederate flag. Which brings me to a monument to Black Confederates? There is much more to that than folks realize.

      About 5,700 black Virginians served in USCT regiments. They certainly did earn their valor on the battlefield. I always thought that it was most appropriate that an entire army corps of USCT regiments captured Richmond, restored order, and put the flames of a dying city out.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Interestingly, there was a great resistance to using the USCT soldiers at the Battle of the Crater by Union commanders for fear of a slaughter. (I’m sure some Union officers feared the troops would not fight.) Originally, the Black Division was selected to lead the charge into the exploded earth but was held back as noted above. Only at the end of the battle, were the USCT troops engaged, by which time it had become a slaughter pen.

        Fox’s Regimental Losses (1889) had the following to say about the African-American troops at the Crater. ” It [the Division] was not ordered forward until the assault was a bloody failure, and although it did all that men could do, it was unable to retrieve the disaster. This change of plan relieved the colored regiments of all responsibility for that defeat. Still, they fought bravely, and held their ground under the most discouraging circumstances. How well they stood is attested by their terrible losses.”

      2. I agree that context is important, johnrandolphofroanoke, but inaccuracies don’t help. 1) The pay issue was protested from the start, by both black and white personnel, and was largely rectified (with back pay) by early 1865. Also note that 20,000 black naval personnel received equal pay from the start of the War. 2) More than 120 black soldiers were commissioned during the War. Not a huge number, but more than the zero that you imply. 3) Aside from Arlington, USCT graves in the 15+ National Cemeteries I’ve visited are not found in “segregated plots”, and are maintained precisely the same as others. Your comment strongly implies otherwise. 4) “When used in battle it was often disastrous…” Not sure what you’re getting at – is that based on a historical/statistical analysis?

  2. warrenhollowbooks Avatar

    “They were not the political leadership which must take the blame for America’s most tragic war, and many were hardly volunteers.”

    They just elected the leadership . . .

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Fair point. But the secession debate in Virginia was a close one, not really decided until the end, and of course to this day there are now two Virginias. The fire eaters were hardly being honest with the voters at the time. Again, history is – a word I heard this year from a guide in France – complicated. In the Van Lew book we meet unionist Richmond residents who were hardly abolitionist (although she was – quietly.)

      1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

        The fire eaters are interesting group of rascals. I did some research on Colonel William Baskerville of Mecklenburg County. The number sheets on the 1860 Census slave schedules was staggering. Colonel Baskerville was the owner of nearly 300 slaves. I was able to come up with a rough calculation of the value of those slaves in 1860 and convert that number into modern numbers. I came up with a figure just over twenty million dollars. It struck me like a lightening bolt. Colonel Baskerville was all in for secession for a simple motive, to preserve his money. The alternative was to walk away from generations of Baskervilles who had literally built a slave-ocracy. The middle class and yeoman farmers had deferred to this class of leaders since colonial times.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Interesting point. The Virginia Constitution of 1851 would have been operative for the election of the politicians who took Virginia into the Civil War. While this constitution eliminated the property requirement for voting in the 1830 constitution I believe (but don’t know) that the apportionment of legislative representatives included slaves (or some proportion of slaves) while not allowing slaves to vote. If I am right this would have effectively disenfranchised poor whites from the western area of Virginia (which now includes part of Virginia and all of West Virginia). As of the 1840 census, the majority of the white residents of the state lived in western Virginia. But their votes counted for less than those of the plantation elite from southeastern Virginia. Residents of western Virginia counties decided they could countenance neither succession to preserve slavery nor the ongoing disenfranchisement from the immoral plantation elite so they left the state and formed West Virginia. Even outside of western Virginia there was dissension. There were actually two votes on succession – one prior to Ft Sumpter and one after. A number of counties still in Virginia voted twice not to succeed – including Fairfax (in fact, almost all of Northern Virginia), Franklin, Henry, Norfolk County, Augusta and Henrico.) You can see the details here:

      Virginia’s involvement in the Civil War was yet another example of the state being led astray by the miscreants of Virginia’s plantation elite. If you want to affix blame for the catastrophic attempt to preserve the American apocalypse known as slavery you need look no further than the plantation elite. The same plantation elite after the Civil War that was behind the Byrd Machine, Jim Crow, Massive Resistance, eugenics, our corrupt 1971 state constitution and so many other fiascos. However, good news – it seems with last November’s election we may have finally, at long last rid ourselves of control by the plantation elite. Well almost … we still need to throw one last representative of the plantation elite out … Gov CoonmanT Blackface.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I am curious–why do you label the 1971 Va. Constitution “corrupt”? It is the one that is still in effect and a lot better than its predecessor.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Hell yes, this statute is long overdue.

    What a tragedy that the great historian Hari Jone’s did not live to see this day, robbed of what he work so hard, so long and so well to make happen, up to the day of his untimely death last year in June at the age of 59 years.

    To hear and see Hari’s 9 irreplaceable history lessons on “His Colored Troops” helping to win the Civil War, go to C-Span at:

    A historian of great integrity and courage, Hari Jones was a master of his craft, a fierce devotion to history built on original sources. For a sense of Hari’s character, see his fiery speech linked into window just below.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      It’s growing on me. I always respect art with a touch of the incongruous.

  4. I’m all in favor of a monument honoring black soldiers who fought in the Civil war. However, it would be even better honor a black Virginia soldier. I would nominate Alexander Thomas Augusta, the first African American head of a hospital, the first black professor of medicine, and, as head surgeon for the the U.S. Colored Infantry, the highest-ranking black officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. Augusta was born in Norfolk.

    1. Anonymous3444 Avatar

      Regarding Alexander Thomas Augusta, Wikipedia adds:

      “In 1868 Augusta was the first African American to be appointed to the faculty of Howard University and the first to any medical college in the United States.”

      There’s a connection to Howard, which (while admittedly not a Virginian institution) is one of the most prestigious historically black colleges universities in the nation. This gentleman sounds like someone that Virginians should be extremely proud of, and I am ashamed that I’ve never heard of him before today.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    That’s a good start – about 150 years late… after all that “unpleasantness”.

    It’s a start – but we have a ways to go… before we set things right.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Van Lew is included in the list of names on the new Women’s Monument on Capitol Square.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Where is this fellows statue , memorial, schools named after him?

  8. There is a state historic marker for Van Lew.
    It is along 10th Street maybe (the western edge of the Capitol grounds).
    I Tuff has been there for years (maybe 10 now).

    1. Wait. I think I’m wrong. That may be a marker for a female Revolutionary War spy.

    2. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Good to know. Will have to go find it soon.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    well , not exactly a memorial to him for his contributions:

    and it was erected in 2005 – not after the Civil War when most Jim Crow statues and memorials were erected.

    but even then – both roads and schools were named after Confederate leaders and few if any named for African Americans.

    We need to be honest about how this happened.

  10. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I was thinking that there was a marker along Ninth St., near the Bell Tower, commemorating a woman who dressed as a man and accompanied her husband to fight in the Revolutionary War, but I can’t find it in the DHR database.

    The marker for the Adams-Van Lew is at the Bellevue School, on Church Hill, near the corner of East Grace and 24th St.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    What do ya’ll think of the idea of replacing Confederate leaders names of schools to historic black folks – especially at schools that have large percentages of black folks?

    Maybe a process where the schools are identified and the question is put to voters in that district?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Local decisions. There is no state law preventing that, whereas state law protects the Confederate statues. The local school boards can decide and as they are elected now they are accountable to the voters already. Some of the schools are named for local notables who had significant accomplishments unrelated to any military service during the Late Unpleasantness. But local decisions in all cases.

  12. Pamela Baldwin Avatar
    Pamela Baldwin

    My view is that we should honor both black Union soldiers and white Union soldiers from Virginia, as well as the Confederates, most of whom surely thought they were on the right side based on the society in which they lived. Here in Loudoun County, I suggest we erect a statue honoring the Loudoun Rangers, who were a Union company created in Waterford, Lovettsville and what is now Lincoln — three Loudoun communities where Union loyalists were the majority (as indicated in the secession vote of 1861). I am recommending that we move the Confederate statue from its current position — in front of the main door into the Loudoun Courthouse — off to one side, and erect the Loudoun Rangers statue on the other side.

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