“Better Soldiers Never Shouldered a Musket”

So said US Army Major General Benjamin Butler after observing the keen proficiency in marching and drilling demonstrated by a unit of newly enlisted soldiers of African descent. It was mid-1862 and Butler was organizing the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first regiment of African American soldiers that would serve in the Union Army.

Butler at the time was on the leading edge of change. When the Civil War began in April 1861, the Militia Act of 1792 prohibited men of African descent from serving in the US Army. As it became clearer to military and political leaders that this war would not be a short one, this exclusion was seriously reconsidered.   

African American Civil War Museum| Frederick Douglas| Men of Color|
1863 Recruitment Poster. The poster was endorsed by Frederick Douglas and other African American leaders, encouraging men of African descent to enlist.

In the summer of 1862, Congress passed two laws, the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act of 1862, which would create the legal framework for receiving certain freed slaves and others of African descent into the Army. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, further expanded and clarified their roles in military service. The War Department began actively preparing to receive African Americans into the Army. Recruitment was slow at first, then grew steadily as African American community leaders encouraged action. 

African American Civil War Museum | Washington DC | Travel Objective DC| U Street| Vermont Avenue

Today, this service is commemorated at the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington, DC.  This year the museum marks 20 years of chronicling the story of how African Americans, both slaves and freemen, took up arms and discharged their duties with dignity during the Civil War.  

The museum and memorial are located along Washington, DC’s famous U Street corridor, the traditional center for African American culture in Northwest Washington. Today the corridor is revitalizing with new stores, restaurants, clubs and other development complimenting such historic landmarks as the famed Howard Theater.  In 2011, the museum moved into the auditorium of the Grimke School, formerly a neighborhood school built in 1907 and named for a prominent African American family.  

African American Civil War Museum| Vermont Avenue| U Street
Life sized banners greet visitors to the museum.

The entrance to the museum is tucked away down an alley lined with banners depicting the military duties African Americans performed. Once inside, a succession of display panels along with select artifacts trace the history of Africans and their descendants in early America, their military experiences during the American Revolution and War of 1812, and ultimately, their service in the Civil War.

As recruitment steadily grew, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops in May of 1863 to provide the administrative support necessary to induct, equip and train the soldiers, who would serve in separate units from whites. Ultimately, about 178,000 men of African descent enlisted and 175 U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments were formed, comprising 10% of the Union Army. USCT regiments also included mixed race individuals, Hispanics, and Native Americans. White officers generally filled the leadership ranks of these units, although some regiments did have African American officers at the company level. The Bureau of Colored Troops established guidelines and panels to identify and select USCT officers; those with advanced education and prior military experience were especially recruited. 

United States Colored Troops| Training Manual| Infantry Tactics|
Title page of a training manual on infantry tactics developed for US Colored Troops units.

USCT units often performed non-combat missions – referred to as “fatigue duty”- such as digging trenches, building bridges, and cutting new roads. Since many USCT soldiers were Southerners and possessed a specialized knowledge of local geography, USCT units were sometimes given scouting and reconnaissance missions. When they were assigned to combat, USCT regiments won praise for their gallantry. More prominent engagements for USCT regiments include Fort Wagner (as depicted in the movie Glory), the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia and the Battle of Nashville. At Vicksburg, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of his USCT soldiers “All that have been tried have fought bravely.”

Unlike the Army, the Militia Act of 1792 did not apply to the Navy which had long enlisted sailors of African descent. During the Civil War, approximately 19,000 African American sailors served throughout the Union Navy, generally aboard the same ships as white sailors.

African American Civil War Memorial| African American Sailor| U Street| U Street Metro
A US Navy Sailor depicted on the African American Civil War Memorial. 

The individual gallantry demonstrated by soldiers and sailors of African descent was recognized by many unit commanders. The museum introduces 18 soldiers and two sailors who won the Medal of Honor during Civil War combat.

African American Civil War Museum| John Lawson

One is Navy Landsman John Lawson.

While serving aboard the USS Hartford at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Landsman Lawson was “Wounded in the leg and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the 6-man crew as the shell whipped on the berth deck, Lawson, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties…”.

At war’s end, some USCT regiments were disbanded, but many were assigned to occupation duty. As the Regular Army was reorganized, four regiments of African American soldiers were ultimately established and maintained. Members of those regiments, the 24th and 25th Infantry, and 9th and 10th Cavalry, would become renown as “the Buffalo Soldiers”. 

While the museum’s current space in the former school’s auditorium is rather confining, a recently announced redevelopment of the Grimke School building will provide a larger 10,000-12,000 square foot area into which the museum will expand.  The new space will allow for the display of additional artifacts, two new exhibits and a theater. This news is undoubtedly welcome for the museum’s staff, patrons and visitors. 

African American Civil War Memorial| U Street| Vermont Avenue| U Street Metro
The African American Civil War Memorial. The metal panels wrapping around the sculpture contain the names of those who served in USCT regiments. 

Across the street from the museum placed in a wide stone plaza is a bronze statue entitled The Spirit of Freedom by sculptor Ed Hamilton. The statue depicts three Union soldiers and one sailor of African descent on one side and an African American soldier with his family on the other. The statue was completed in 1997. Curved metal panels, inscribed with the names of the 209,145 officers and soldiers who served in USCT units, encircle the sculpture to one side. 

A visit to the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial provides a compelling introduction to how USCT soldiers went from slaves and civilians to a professional force, fighting for their freedom, their rights and for the Union. They not only changed the tide of the Union war effort, but also secured a lasting place for African Americans in the US military. Today, African Americans comprise approximately 18% of the ranks of the US Armed Forces. Their continued service is a legacy of the US Colored Troops and their naval counterparts. 

African American Civil War Memorial| U Street| U Street Metro| Vermont Avenue| Frederick Douglas

The courage displayed by soldiers and sailors of African descent during the Civil War played a critical role in African Americans gaining new rights. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, “U.S”., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship”. 

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Route Recon:

The African American Civil War Museum is located at 1925 Vermont Avenue, NW in Washington, DC, near the intersection with U Street. The hours are Monday from 1000 to 1700, Tuesday – Friday 1000 to 1830, Saturday 1000 to 1600 and Sundays 1200 to 1600. Admission is free. There is limited street parking near the museum. Visit the African American Civil War Museum website for more information.

The museum and memorial are easily accessible from Metro. Use the 10th Street exit from the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo station on the Green and Yellow lines. The memorial plaza is at the top of the escalator. 

Mess Call:

Bens| Bens Chili Bowl| Half Smoke| U Street|

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Just two blocks down U Street from the museum and memorial is Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local favorite since 1958. Ben’s has seen some challenging times as an eatery, to include the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and the construction of Metro in the 70s. Yet it has persevered and today proudly serves their signature dish, the half-smoke sandwich, to celebrities, politicians and locals alike. There are a variety of other menu items as well such as burgers and vegetarian chili. (Note: They do not accept credit cards, but there is an ATM on premises).

 Ben’s Chili Bowl

1213 U Street, NW (between 12th and 13th Street)

Monday-Thursday: Breakfast: 0600-1045; Lunch/Dinner: 1045-0200 

Friday: Breakfast: 0600-1045; Lunch/Dinner 1045-0400

Saturday: Breakfast: 0700-1045; Lunch/Dinner 1045-0400

Sunday: 1100-0000

Can You Read the Writing on the Wall?

Upon hearing the word graffiti, spray painted tags, stencils, or other designs on buildings, overpasses and other fixtures might come to mind.

At Historic Blenheim in Fairfax, Virginia, however, researchers study a very different type of graffiti.  These graffiti were written in graphite, crayon and charcoal by Union soldiers over one hundred years ago. The graffiti and the stories of the soldiers who wrote them provide insight into the lives of the Union Army recruits who early on answered the call to fight to preserve the Union.

Historic Blenheim | Fairfax Virginia | Civil War Graffiti | Travel Objective DC
In addition to their names and units, soldiers also made drawings. Ships such as this one were common. 

The centerpiece of Historic Blenheim is a brick farmhouse, built by Albert and Mary Wilcoxon on their a 300+ acre farm near what was then known as the village of Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, about 17 miles west of Washington, DC The house was built around 1859 on the site of their previous home which had been destroyed by fire. 

Historic Blenheim | Fairfax County Virginia | Civil War site | Military tourism | Travel Objective DC
The Farmhouse at Historic Blenheim

In July of 1861, an article in the Richmond Dispatch described how Union soldiers, en route to Manassas, vandalized the home, breaking windows, tearing doors off hinges and destroying furniture. Those Union soldiers moved on and Confederate forces held the area until March of 1862, when they evacuated toward Richmond.

Once the Southern troops withdrew, the Army of the Potomac moved from Washington, DC to occupy parts of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax Courthouse.  The Wilcoxon’s, who favored succession, departed their home and resided elsewhere in the area sometime between July 1861 and March 1863.

Vase on display from Historic Blenheim Civil War site in Fairfax Virginia
A vase by the dining room fireplace.

During the Civil War, as in many wars, disease killed more soldiers than combat. Poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition, contaminated water, cramped living conditions, a limited understanding of germs, and other factors all contributed to an environment rife with disease. Illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were common and deadly for Civil War soldiers.

As a sturdy structure near strategic thoroughfares, the Wilcoxon house and farm soon became a hospital for Union soldiers diagnosed with diseases and other inhibiting ailments, rather than combat wounds.  Many were housed in tents in the surrounding fields. The more seriously ill were quartered in the house. 

Historic Blenheim in Fairfax Virginia was used by the Union Army as a hospital for soldiers during the Civil War
The first floor parlor fireplace with period medicine bottles and crutches.

The first soldiers convalescing in the Wilcoxon house found three floors of pristine plaster walls. Since the house was new, the plaster had not yet cured and the walls were neither painted nor wall papered. Soldiers quickly began writing their names, units, dates, and adding drawings, doodles, sketches and other decorations. 

Drawing of a ship by Civil War soldier | Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail | Military tourism | Fairfax Virginia
Ships, buildings and aspects of military life were all common subjects for soldiers’ drawing. 
Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail | Historic Blenheim | Drawing of a soldier by a Civil War soldier

The first dates written by soldiers on the house’s walls were in March 1862. Soldiers were on the Wilcoxon farm through mid-1863.  The family returned to the home around September 1863, after Albert Wilcoxon signed an “Oath of Allegiance” to the United States.  The Wilcoxons returned the farm to working order.  Although the family would paint and paper the walls on the first and second floors of their home several times through the years, none of the four generations that lived in the house ever covered or altered the attic graffiti.

Today, the property is known as Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center. Visitors can tour the first floor of the Greek revival farm house and see the recovered writings and some of the preservation work underway. Paper and paint have been carefully removed from the walls and the floors reinforced to protect the structural integrity of the house.  

Unfortunately, the second floor and the attic are not open to the public, but the nearby Interpretive Center does have a life size replica of the attic so visitors can get a closer look at the attic drawings. The Interpretive Center also has information about the soldiers and units who passed through Blenheim, additional background on the Wilcoxon family and a small gift shop.  

The Interpretive Center at Blenheim | Civil War history | Fairfax Virginia | Travel Objective DC
The Interpretive Center at Blenheim. It’s design suggests Blenheim’s agricultural past. 

The center’s staff have identified 122 individual soldiers from 23 different units who wrote graffiti on the Blenheim walls. Reviews of military records provide an overview of the men. As a group, the average age was 25. About 45% were foreign born, mostly from present day Germany. Farming was their predominate occupation.

Blenheim researchers though have combed through military, pension and other government records and worked with local historical and genealogical societies to assemble more intimate portraits of many of these men. One is Charles Schlingermann of the 58th New York Infantry Regiment. A native of Prussia, he enlisted in September 1861 at the age of 19. He had only been in America about three months. He died of his wounds following the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 and is buried on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC. 

Civil War graffiti | 58th New York Volunteers | Fairfax VA | military tourism | Travel Objective DC

Another is Charles H. Johnson, of the 1st Michigan Calvary Regiment. He was 19 years old when he wrote on the attic walls on June 20, 1863. He survived service at Gettysburg and the remainder of the war to reenlist in the Veterans Volunteers of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. He served at Fort Laramie during the Indian Campaign.

He left the Army in 1866 and returned to Michigan where he married and raised his family. After his wife’s death, he moved to San Jose, California to live with his daughter until his death in 1924. He was a prolific letter writer during his military service; his many letters home are now archived at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Civil War soldier signature on the wall at Historic Blenheim | Fairfax VA | Travel Objective DC | 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers
Researchers are working to identify another soldier’s signature using acetate to trace the signature in order to see it more clearly. This soldier was a member of Company B, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry. 

A visit to Blenheim provides a unique Civil War historical experience. It is not a battlefield, and not quite a memorial nor museum. The names on the wall take on a new significance when written by the hand of the soldier. As a preservation project, Blenheim takes its visitors past the odd fact and footnote and literally introduces them to the personal legacy of the soldiers who passed through over a century ago. 

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Civil War soldiers left their marks in other buildings as well. The Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail features six other Civil War era buildings where soldiers’ writings have been preserved.   

ROUTE RECON

Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center are located at 3610 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax, Virginia, 22030 The operating days and hours are  1000 – 1500 Tuesday – Saturday. The historic house tour is held once each day at 1300. Call 703-591-0560 for more information. Historic Blenheim can be accessed by public transit. Take Metro’s Orange Line to the Vienna Metro Station. From the Station, take the CUE Gold Bus Route 11 toward George Mason University, stopping at Heritage Lane.