Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Remembering the USCTs Where they Rest

Hampton National Cemetery on the Campus of Hampton University


Several years ago I had an appointment to meet some students at Hampton University for a recruitment event.  I was excited to visit the campus as I knew some details about the campus that I wanted to see. Several students were assigned to walk with us to take us to the appropriate building on campus.   While walking with the student guides, I could not help but see the cemetery right on the campus and interestingly, this was a national cemetery---military headstones, standing in their crisp marble precision, erect, and bright in the sun.  
I mentioned to the student that I was curious as to who was buried there and wanted to take a detour through the cemetery---to see how old the headstones were.  She agreed and we wandered into the area. I found what I hoped to find!  The headstone of a black Union Army soldier. And there were more, and more and more!!

Stone of Alfred B. Hilton, Company H, 4th US Colored. Hilton is buried at Hampton. 
He was also a recipient of the Medal of Honor

I had to express my excitement---and remarked---"Oh goodness look at this---this man was in the Civil War----in an all black regiment organized in Maryland!"

She was rather astonished, and only said,   "Really?  How can  you tell?"  I pointed out to her some brief facts about the US Colored Troops and how so many came from the MD, and Virginia area, and she was amazed. I pointed out to her how to recognize Civil War era soldiers and how to tell if they were black Union soldiers.

She said to me, "I have been on this campus for three years and have passed this cemetery every day. Nobody ever told me about this history and who these people were. This is amazing!"  

Of course I was not surprised at how she didn't know, but her next statement was even more interesting: "You know I never liked history---it never pertained to me, but what you just told me makes me want to know some more. I never knew this!"

Of course what she said was no real surprise---but this was different.  This cemetery rests on a university campus. The university has a history department. I wonder how many (or how few) students ever looked at the cemetery as a map to the history of the very region where it rests! (I also wonder how many professors ever spoke about it.)

Then again----I thought about my hometown---Ft. Smith Arkansas. Few residents are aware of the 106 black soldiers from the Civil War who are buried at the National Cemetery there.  And how many in Little Rock are aware of the dozens of black soldiers buried at Little Rock National?

Soldier Buried at Little Rock National. Photographed by Tonia Holleman

There are so many incredible stories of these men lying in cemeteries waiting to be told!  How many are even curious as to what Alfred Hilton (whose stone is in an image above), what did he do to receive the Medal of Honor?  And how many are aware that several other black soldiers also received the Medal of Honor from the same battle?  

Incredible stories lie quietly in those national cemeteries---yet we pass them every day oblivious to who they are, what they did, and how their actions brought us to where we are today.  Perhaps it is because we don't know who they are. But---not even on the Memorial Day events do these soldiers get recognized! We need to open our eyes to the richness of our own history!

I was happy to here that ASALH, (Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) has chosen as the National Black History Theme to be African Americans and the Civil War.  The Civil War is not just something that white men who enjoy reenacting pursue.  Perhaps our own discomfort with a history immersed in slavery makes so many of us uncomfortable. But only by looking at that  history, can we be released from that pain and that discomfort. 

By looking at that history, and at the Civil War that did bring about freedom at the end---we can also become empowered by that knowledge.  In addition, many more will come to the amazing fact that they have a Civil War ancestor in  their own family history!! What a source of pride and dignity and what a story to pass to the next generation!!

I ask all who read this post, is there a national cemetery where you live? 

Have you ever driven through it and taken a look at the history that is there? 

Let's not ignore those cemeteries---rich histories lie there, and communities have countless stories to uncover. We need to visit them, find our ancestors buried there, and then document their stories! By doing so, we will find details about their lives, their families, and seeds from which a community has grown.

William H. Barnes, Medal of Honor Winner is Buried at San Antonio National Cemetery
Source of Photo (click link)


  1. There is not a national cemetery near me - I think Camp Nelson National Cemetery is the closest, a couple of hours away and I do want to visit it again - but I recently began a project of going through local cemeteries to try to find and photograph any headstones of Civil War veterans I could find.

    It has been a fun experience, and I have found some neat information and stories about some of the men, but I was surprised in one cemetery to find 3 headstones of members of the USCT. They are in different sections, buried among other people, mostly civilians, but their headstones clearly show they were in the USCT.

    I have not yet found out a lot of information about each, but I still will include what I find on the www.civilwarheadstones blog I run. In fact, tonight I just posted a picture of the headstone of Willis Walker, a member of the 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery unit, right before I saw this entry. That was pretty cool timing.

    I do hope to find more USCT veterans buried here (Northern Kentucky) but I imagine they will be the exception not the rule. Still, I was happy to find such men buried in the area and hope I can bring at least a small bit of recognition to their service to their country.

  2. "I pointed out to her how to recognize Civil War era soldiers and how to tell if they were black Union soldiers."

    This is great stuff - but for the rest of us who are also ignorant - what are the keys to determining this? I'm just not aware of what the abbreviations mean.

  3. Richard, I will be happy to share information with you on some of the soldiers that you have found. If they got a pension I can look up some of their data next time I get to the National Archives.

  4. BetweenTwoWhirlds,
    I shall explain how to recognize them in a future post. Your post clearly illustrates that this needs to be pointed out. Stay tuned.