Grant Immemorial

Ulysses S Grant Memorial | Washington DC

The sculpted face of Ulysses S. Grant looks across the National Mall with dispassionate determination. Around him a battle rages. A cavalry unit charges forward, an artillery detail hurries to emplace a cannon, infantry continue their forward march. Yet Grant, in his simple uniform and campaign hat, sits atop his war horse Cincinnati, looking forward, studying the situation and planning several steps ahead.

Such is the image portrayed in Washington, DC’s memorial dedicated to the Civil War General-In-Chief and 18th President of the United States. The memorial is located in Union Square, a plaza located just west of the U.S. Capitol grounds.

The move to commemorate Grant in Washington, DC began in the decade after his death in 1885, spearheaded by surviving veterans of the Union Army of the Tennessee. In 1902, Congress ultimately selected the ambitious designs of sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady and architect Edward Pierce Casey who envisioned a large multifaceted memorial in bronze and stone. 

A native of New York City and a graduate of Columbia University, Shrady took up art while recuperating from typhoid fever. Although Shrady had no formal training as an artist or sculptor, some of his early works earned him much acclaim. He focused on sculpture and studied anatomy very carefully in order to portray realistic figures in his statues. In 1901, he completed a famous equestrian statue of George Washington located in Brooklyn.

Men and horses advance in the statue entitled Calvary Charge, part of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.

After winning the Grant award, he engaged himself even more thoroughly in researching his subjects. He studied New York City Police Department horses. He examined Grant’s death mask. He observed military drills and exercises. He analyzed Civil War uniforms, weaponry and equipment to enhance the detail in his work. He drew upon his father’s recollections as a physician who attended to Grant in his final year. His architect partner, Edward Casey, was a veteran of the New York National Guard and lent some of his military experience to the project.

Shrady and Casey’s memorial dominates the Union Square area. The centerpiece statue of Grant, reaching 44 feet high, is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world. Two bronze bas-relief sculptures depicting advancing infantry adorn opposite sides of the statue’s pedestal. Four bronze lions on their own pedestals guard Grant’s statue adding a sense of majesty. The statues and pedestals sit upon a terraced marble platform about 240 feet from end to end. At both sides along that platform are additional bronze sculptures depicting the randomness and chaos of combat. 

An artillery detachment races to place a cannon in Henry Shrady’s statue Artillery at the Ulysses S. Grant memorial.

The sculpture known as Artillery presents a team of soldiers and horses racing to position a cannon. The guidon bearer has signaled a turn to the right, yet a bridle on the lead horse has broken and the horse continues to lunge forward. 

At the opposite end of the memorial, the statue entitled Cavalry Charge depicts cavalry troopers on the move.  An officer raises his sword ordering the advance, the buglar sounds the charge, a soldier bears the colors. Yet tragedy is about to strike as a trooper has fallen from his mount and will be trampled. Shrady is said to have portrayed himself as the ill-fated soldier. 

Shrady had worked relentlessly for twenty years on the memorial, undertaking some of the most ambitious and complex sculpting work of the time. He obsessed over every detail of the massive statues, each of which took years to produce and were some of the largest bronze castings of their time. Sadly, Shrady died about two weeks before the final dedication of the statue in April of 1922 commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Grant’s birth.

The face of the fallen trooper in the Cavalry Charge statue, said to be that of the sculptor Henry Shrady. The Grant Memorial project consumed twenty years of Shrady’s life.

Given the interest both Shrady and Grant had in horses, it is not surprising how prominent they are in this memorial. This seems fitting as Grant was an accomplished rider and horseman.

Grant learned to care for and work with horses as a young man growing up in Ohio. His father was a well-connected businessman who secured his eldest son an appointment to West Point. Grant was not especially enthused about attending the military academy, but knew it was likely his best opportunity for a university education. 

Ironically, it was an accident of paperwork at West Point that he got his name Ulysses Simpson Grant. He was born Hiram Ulysses, but his Congressman wrote Ulysses Simpson (his mother’s maiden name) on his appointment documents. When he reported to West Point in 1839, he was told the appointment was for Ulysses Simpson Grant, so he assumed the name, rather than reapplying. 

 He was a capable, but unambitious student who graduated in the middle of his class in 1843.   

Originally thinking he might go on to teach college math, Grant decided on a military career following his service in the Mexican-American War. During the war, Grant was recognized several times for his bravery in combat. He learned some important skills during his service in Mexico, developing a proficiency in military logistics, and witnessing the leadership styles of several commanders, including Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. 

Detail of the two artillerymen riding the wagon in the Artillery statue.

After the war, Grant found aspects of the peacetime Army difficult, especially the separation from his family. Unfortunately, he looked for solace in alcohol and developed a reputation as a problem drinker. That reputation followed him his entire life. He resigned his commission in 1854 and unsuccessfully pursued a string of civilian jobs, ultimately going back to work for his father in Galena, Illinois. 

Following the attack at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Grant was determined to return to military service. He sought and received a commission and the command of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He restored discipline and effectively trained the unit to make it combat ready. A promotion to brigadier general followed in August 1861.  

A bronze bas-relief plaque of marching infantry soldiers on the pedestal of the Grant equestrian statue.

In February 1862, Grant led his troops to successful engagements at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in western Tennessee. His successes gave the Union some badly needed victories. They also gained him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, because he demanded his enemies surrender without terms. His actions led to his promotion as a Major General of volunteers and he was appointed commander of the Army of the Tennessee.  

In April 1863, Grant’s army was attacked by Confederate forces; the resulting fight at the Battle of Shiloh made plain the painful truth that a long war awaited both sides. The losses were staggering, a combined 23,000 causalities. But Grant’s deft leadership in sustaining the rebel assault and successfully counterattacking led to a Union victory. Grant received criticism for being unprepared for the Confederate attack; some even calling for his removal.  Lincoln famously responded “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

After Shiloh, Grant and his Army pushed further south from Tennessee, aiming to take the Mississippi River port city of Vicksburg, a vital logistics hub for the Confederacy. Grant would demonstrate strategic prowess in this campaign, coordinating his troop’s movements with the Navy, splitting his forces to fend off a rebel reinforcement, and ultimately accepting the surrender of Vicksburg and its 30,000 Confederate defenders on July 4, 1863 after a 48-day siege.  

In October 1863, Grant was given command of all Union armies in the West. He moved quickly to break a Confederate siege of a Union Army in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His success led Lincoln to appoint Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General (the first officer to hold this rank since George Washington) and as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States in March 1864.

As General-in-Chief, Grant provided Lincoln with a campaign plan for a multiple front operation wherein Federal Armies would pursue the remaining major Confederate formations and degrade the South’s ability to wage war.  

Through the spring of 1864 and into 1865, Grant would accompany General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac, engaging in a brutal campaign which ultimately lead to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865. 

Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Virginia Headquarters in June 1864.

-Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

After the war, Grant would serve as Secretary of War under President Andrew Johnson. In 1868, he was elected president and served two terms. Unfortunately for President Grant, although he was personally honest and upright, those around him were not and his administrations were tainted by corruption. Still, there were several notable accomplishments during his administration such as the ratification of the 14th Amendment, passage of early civil rights legislation, establishment of the Department of Justice, and the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Despite the scandals, Grant remained very popular. Like Washington, he chose not to run for a third term. He left office, and embarked on a grand tour of America and the world. His later years proved quite difficult. An unscrupulous investor took advantage of Grant and he lost much of his money in bad investments. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884. Wanting to leave his wife with sufficient means to support herself, he worked tirelessly up to his death to complete his memoirs.  When the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant was finally published, it was a major success, heralded by critics, historians and the public alike.

Grant died on July 23, 1885 in upstate New York. Over a quarter of a million people viewed his funeral train as it traveled down the Hudson River valley to New York City. Tens of thousands of Union Army veterans accompanied Grant’s casket in a procession sometimes seven miles long. Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner were among his pall bearers. 

For a time, Grant’s legacy suffered from debatable stories related to his drinking, supposed indifference to losing soldiers in combat and scandalous presidency. Over the past several decades though, historians and scholars have more closely examined Grant’s characteristics as a strategic leader, effective manager, and skilled tactician.

Like Grant’s reputation, his memorial in Washington, DC has also undergone refurbishment over the past few years. In 2011, the Architect of the Capitol accepted responsibility for the memorial from the National Park Service and began to restore the statuary and stonework. Signs of corrosion and weathering were removed, the marble and bronze polished, missing or broken features from the statues, such as swords and chains, were replaced. Eight ornate bronze lamps were also installed around the memorial.  

Portrait Photograph of President Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1870

-Matthew Brady; Library of Congress Prints and Photograph’s Division

At the top of that memorial, as the face of General Grant gazes west, he can see the memorial to his wartime president, Abraham Lincoln. Through the Civil War years, Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln developed a close working relationship. The two were westerners with a common touch and similarly humble origins. Lincoln appreciated Grant’s leadership, his willingness to maintain the offense and his sense of responsibility. Grant wrote: “No general could want better backing for the president was a man of great wisdom and moderation.” Now their memorials bookend our National Mall, a fitting testimonial to the president and his general who fought so hard to preserve the Union.

Route Recon

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is located along First Street, NW, just to the west of the U.S. Capitol building. The best way to get to the memorial (and the Capitol) is by taking Metro.

Three Metro stops are within walking distance of the memorial and the Capitol:

  • Union Station – Located at First Street, NW, and Massachusetts Avenue.
  • Capitol South – Located at First Street between C and D Streets, SE.
  • Federal Center, SW – Located at the southwest corner of Third and D Streets, SW.

Additional information on riding Metro, is available at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The DC Circulator, a public bus system with routes through Washington’s downtown area includes stops near the Memorial. Find more information about Circulator busses at www.dccirculator.com.

There is very little public parking available near the Capitol. The nearest public parking facility is at Union Station, to the north of the Capitol. Very limited metered street parking is found along the Mall to the west of the Capitol.

Command Reading List

Many books have been written on Ulysses S. Grant. The below works offer new insights into Grant’s character and leadership.

Grant by Ron Chenow

Noted biographer covers Grant’s entire life and career, from his Ohio childhood through his presidency and beyond.

The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant by Charles Calhoun

This book by historian Charles Calhoun produced a very comprehensive analysis of the Grant presidency, with detailed research that challenges some of the early criticisms of Grant which are often repeated by historians and biographers.  

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John F. Marszalek with David S. Nolan and Louie P. Gallow

Grant’s memoirs were immensely popular when published in 1885. This annotated version provides extensive background and context to Grant’s original writing.

* * *

Fort Ward, the Mission Continues

Six Civil War reproduction cannons stand as silent sentinels over the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site, an open and inviting space in Alexandria, Virginia, Washington, DC’s neighbor to the south. The site, located in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighborhood, was originally conceived as a Civil War era preservation project. Today, Fort Ward is embracing over 150 years of history, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era, for this prominent and storied Virginia city.

Fort Ward’s origins are found in the days following the rebel victory at Manassas in July of 1861.  U.S. Government leaders quickly realized the Federal capital was in a precarious situation. Bordered on one side by Virginia, now enemy territory, and the other by Maryland, a slave holding state, Washington, D.C had almost no physical defenses to rely on.

Cannon - Fort Ward - Alexandria VA - Civil War defenses

The Army appointed one of its leading engineers and an expert on coast artillery, John Barnard, to design a robust defensive system along the high grounds surrounding Washington to guard strategic waterways, roads, railways and bridges. By the end of the war, Barnard’s extensive efforts lead to the construction of 68 forts and 93 gun batteries bristling with over 800 cannons and connected by various roads and trenches. Fort Ward is one of the best preserved examples of Washington’s Civil War defenses.  

Construction of Fort Ward began in July 1861 and was completed about two months later to protect the main approaches into Alexandria. The fort was named for U.S. Navy Commander James H. Ward, the first U.S. Navy officer killed in action during the Civil War.

Civil War re-enactors - Washington DC - Civil War sites
Fort Ward hosts multiple living history events throughout the year.

Fort Ward was built as a bastion fort, meaning the walls were designed at angles to provide interlocking fields of fire from inside the fort. Like most of the other fortifications, Fort Ward was constructed primarily of readily available dirt which was much better at withstanding artillery and rifle fire than brick, stone or wooden logs.  The earthen walls were approximately 20 feet high and 12 feet thick. The fort was expanded several times during the war. Ultimately, Fort Ward had five bastions with emplacements for 36 guns and a final perimeter almost half a mile long.  

A trench ran along that perimeter, a final obstacle for any attackers who might make it through the cannon fire. Units from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio garrisoned the fort, usually numbering between three to four hundred men at a time.

Alexandria VA - Fort Ward - park - Civil War

The trench or dry moat surrounding the earthen bastion walls presented one more obstacle for any attacking forces.

Just after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the Union Army moved quickly to occupy Alexandria.  The city soon became a hotbed of Federal activity. Given its port and railroad connections, Alexandria became a logistical center. Troops and supplies would flow through the city. Wounded were transported to Alexandria for treatment and recovery. The city was filled with Army camps, warehouses, supply depots, hospitals and other official activities. This substantial U.S. Government presence attracted African Americans from around Virginia and beyond. Referred to at the time as “contraband,” these men and women came seeking freedom from slavery. They found paid employment at these Federal facilities, including Fort Ward. Many men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops regiments and went to fight.

At war’s end, when the Army left Fort Ward, several African American families remained. They purchased property and began building homes, churches and a school. Over four generations, the African American community continued to grow in its own neighborhood known as “The Fort”. The nearby Virginia Theological Seminary (which gives the current neighborhood its name) and Episcopal High School employed many of The Fort’s residents.

In the 1950s, the City of Alexandria began planning for the restoration of the original Fort Ward and the creation of today’s park space. Unfortunately, this work would lead to the resettlement of The Fort neighborhood. The city bought or appropriated the land compelling the families living there to move on. Archeological excavations of the original Fort Ward began in 1961. Renovations of several portions of the fort followed as part of the Civil War centennial.  The park was formally opened to the public in May of 1964.   

Fort Ward Museum, Alexandria, Virginia
The Fort Ward Museum, designed with a board and batten style commonly used around Washington during the Civil War period.

For a chronological view of Fort Ward, a visit today is best begun in the museum, housed in a reproduction two-story building modeled after a period Army headquarters building.  Museum curators have assembled an impressive collection of weapons, uniforms, documents, photographs, medical instruments, folk art, and other implements of military life to tell the stories behind the Civil War defenses of Washington, the history of Fort Ward, conditions in Alexandria at the time and the lives and duties of Union Army officers and soldiers.  A scale model of the original Fort Ward orients the visitor to its Civil War era layout and appearance.

The museum’s upper floor houses a research library containing a trove of historic materials as well as more contemporary documents and publications on the Union forts defending Washington, DC and other Civil War topics. The museum periodically organizes living history events, hosting Civil War reenactors at Fort Ward to enhance visitors’ understanding of the way soldiers and civilians lived their wartime lives.

Civil War - Officers Quarters - Hut
The Officer’s Hut provides a glimpse into how officers lived at Fort Ward.

Adjacent to the museum is a reproduction officer’s hut. Huts such as these were built to provide housing for Fort Ward’s commissioned officers. Peer through the windows and see the furnishings and accoutrements illustrative of how these officers lived at the time.

The museum and officers’ hut buildings are located on grounds outside of the original fortifications in what was a support area where troop barracks and living quarters were located, and administrative and logistical functions performed. 

Fort Ward - main gate - Alexandria, VA
The reproduction main gate at Fort Ward.

Pass through the reproduction entrance gate to the fort’s original grounds and follow the trail to see what the reconstructed northwest bastion would have looked like in 1864. One of the more heavily armed strongholds of the original Fort Ward as it overlooked the busy Leesburg Pike (today’s State Route 7), the restored northwest bastion includes six gun emplacements along with the magazine and a filling room for ammunition.  

After visiting the reconstructed fort area, a path circles through the larger park with open green space, picnic areas, and an amphitheater. Along the way, descriptive signage explains aspects of The Fort neighborhood and the people who lived there. Existing features of the old neighborhood are emphasized, including several surviving grave sites.  

The Fort - Clara Adams - Gravesite

Clara Adams, a longtime leader in The Fort neighborhood, is buried on the grounds of the historic site. Among her many contributions, she donated land for the community’s African American School.

The City of Alexandria continues to expand the interpretation of Fort Ward’s history for today’s Alexandria residents and visitors alike. A series of interviews with former Fort residents provide compelling first-person accounts of life in and around The Fort. These interviews started in the early 1990’s and continue today. An archeological dig concluding around 2014 used ground radars to clarify the boundaries of known grave sites, identify previously unknown grave sites and unearth additional artifacts. The city also has plans and designs for new interpretive signage and markers, a Fort neighborhood exhibit to the museum, historic home floor plan displays from The Fort neighborhood, and other interpretive tools and techniques to more completely convey the multi-layered story of Fort Ward.

Fort Ward is unique among Washington, DC area historic landmarks and a worthy addition to any DC itinerary. It preserves an essential element of Civil War history, namely the defenses of Washington, while also examining the complex social and cultural impacts of that period on life in Alexandria over the century that followed. As important, its 45 acres of leafy parkland are a pleasant place for locals and visitors alike to spend a sunny afternoon.

Northwest Bastion - Fort Ward - Alexandria, VA
Reproduction cannons at the restored Northwest Bastion

Route Recon:

The Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site is located at:

4301 West Braddock Road
Alexandria, Virginia 22304

Phone: 703.746.4848

Fort Ward is approximately six miles south of Washington, D.C. Free parking is available for cars and buses.

From Washington, DC: Follow signs to Interstate 395 (I-395) south to Richmond. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.

From Old Town Alexandria: Follow King Street west to Alexandria City High School, turn right on Kenwood Avenue. Turn left on West Braddock Road, and proceed about a mile. The Museum entrance is on the right. 

From I-95/I-495 (Capital Beltway): Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.

From Dulles Airport: Take Dulles Access Road East to I-495 North (Capital Beltway). Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.


By Metro Rail, then Bus: Take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street Station. The AT5 DASH Bus  www.dashbus.com to Landmark stops in front of Fort Ward. Call (703) 370-DASH for bus schedules and information.

By Amtrak or Virginia Railway Express: Walk across the street from the Alexandria Union Station to the King Street Metro Station to take the AT5 DASH Bus.  

More information about Fort Ward and how to plan your trip can be found at the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site website.  

“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”. 

***

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.