The African-American Experience During the Civil War
For African-Americans, the Civil War marked a key turning point in the struggle for freedom. But freedom was a battle that began long before the war and continued far beyond the point when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Much of the history of this poignant era can be found in and around Fairfax County and the Capital Region.
Now is the perfect time to get to know the stories behind this historic time that changed America forever. Perhaps best known is the story of Frederick Douglass. His eloquent speeches were the voice of liberty in trying times and his efforts as a conductor on the Underground Railroad helped many find freedom. His final home, Cedar Hill, is in Washington, DC.
Also in DC is the Mary Ann Shadd Cary House, home to one of the nation's first black female lawyers. During the Civil War, she was appointed a Recruiting Officer for the Union Army. You'll also find the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, as well as the Freedmen's Memorial Monument.
Across the river in Alexandria, you can contemplate Bruin's Slave Jail, inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The City of Alexandria's extraordinary Black History Museum also affords visitors the opportunity to understand the human side of war by analyzing its effect on the African-Americans in the city.
Or take a quick day trip to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia where abolitionist John Brown made his daring raid hoping to spark a national uprising for freedom. Instead, it lit the fuse on the bomb that would eventually explode into war.
In Arlington National Cemetery you can explore the the history of the Freedman's Village. The Freedman's Village was established on the Arlington Estate in June 1863 as a camp for "contrabands". Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other iconic African-American figures were frequent visitors to the estate which was the first taste of freedom for many people that had traveled or escaped from the depths of the south.
Fairfax County's Woodlawn and Sully Historic Site also tell the stories of African-Americans during the Civil War. Sully was the home of a Unionist family during the war, and today interpretive slave quarters are on site that allow visitors to gain an understanding about the day to day life of an enslaved people.
During the Civil War Woodlawn was owned by Quakers who sold land to only to free black and white farmers to dispel the idea that slave labor was needed to produce bountiful harvests on southern plantations. This unique social experiment was considered a success but caused the residents of Woodlawn to be a target of raids and constant suspicion by Confederate sympathizers who lived and traveled through the area.
Juneteenth is one of the most important events in our nation’s history related to the African American experience in the Civil War. On “Freedom’s Eve” or the eve of January 1, 1863 the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect.
At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom.
But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. This meant that in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. On June 19, 1865 that changed, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston Bay, TX were notified by the arrival of some 2,000 Union troops that they, along with the more than 250,000 other enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree.