Posts Tagged ‘General Robert E. Lee’

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The African-American Civil War Museum

Whether it’s referred to as the War to Preserve the Union or the War to End Northern Aggression, American Civil War history is all too often thought of in terms of white Yankees from the North fighting against white Southern Rebels, with African Americans relegated to the sidelines of history as their fate was decided for them. The truth, however, is much different.

In 1861 before the Civil War broke out, African Americans comprised about 14 percent of the country’s population, compared to 12.2 percent in the most recent U.S. census.  There were approximately four million slaves in the United States, and almost a half a million free African Americans. But only about one percent of all African Americans in the country lived in the North at that time.

Although African Americans had served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, they were initially not permitted to enlist on either side during the Civil War. In the North, a 1792 law barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln did not support it at that time because he was concerned that accepting black men into the military would cause more of the border states to secede. Free black men were finally permitted to enlist in the Union Army in late 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the South, General Robert E. Lee eventually convinced the Confederate Congress to begin enlisting black soldiers near the end of the war. The legislation required the consent of the slave and his master, and would confer the rights of a freeman after the war.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, it is estimated that 209,145 African-Americans had served as soldiers, participating on both sides, although to a far lesser degree in the South than in the North.  Eventually, several thousand blacks were enlisted in the Rebel cause, but they could not begin to balance out the nearly 200,000 blacks who fought in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) for the Union, and it was too late in the war to make a difference regardless of the numbers.  All together, over 60,000 died over the course of the war, with sickness causing thirty times more deaths than battle.

The African American Civil War Museum, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is dedicated to preserving and telling the stories of these men, and African Americans’ involvement and impact during the American Civil War.  The museum is located in the historic Grimke Building at 1925 Vermont Avenue (MAP), just a couple of blocks west of The African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood’s historic U Street Corridor, an area traditionally considered to be the heart of African-American entertainment and theater in the city.

The museum opened in January of 1999, with a mission “to serve the educational needs of its local, national, and international community with a high-quality and effective learning experience while interpreting the history of the USCT and the community life of African Americans prior to, and after, the American Civil War.” This is achieved through the communication of information and stories using historic documents, photographs, newspaper articles, replicas of period clothing and uniforms, military weaponry and other artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by volunteer re-enactors. With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the museum serves as a unique resource for teachers, scholars, students and professionals of museum studies, as well as the general public. And through the museum’s African American Civil War Descendants Registry, the museum documents the family trees of more than 2,000 descendants of the men who served with the USCT.

As I was leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think that its importance is even greater at a time like now, when the Confederate flag is getting so much attention and causing debate and divisiveness around the country. The museum enables visitors to instead learn about the largely unknown role of those 209,145 black men who fought for freedom and to preserve the union, the 23 who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the emergence of three important amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th — which ended slavery, gave blacks equal protection under the law, and guaranteed black men the right to vote.  All in all, I’d say that’s not a bad achievement for a museum.

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Ford's Theatre

Ford’s Theatre

This bike ride took me to Ford’s Theatre, a building with a rich history, located at 511 10th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown Neighborhood. The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the second meeting house of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, after the congregation moved, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1862, but was rebuilt the following year. The new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, hosting various plays and stages performances. But its initial run as a theatre would not last long.

More than any of the plays or performances hosted there, the theatre is perhaps best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House signaling the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a performance of a play entitled “Our American Cousin” at the theatre. During the performance, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln. Booth then jumped onto the stage, and cried out “Sic semper tyrannis” before escaping through the back of the theatre. The mortally wounded President was taken across the street to The Petersen House, where he died the following day.

Strangely enough, on November 9, 1863 (151 years ago last night), two years before the assassination, Lincoln had been seated in the very same seat at Ford’s Theatre, where he watched Booth perform in the popular play, “The Marble Heart.” An avid theatre-goer, Lincoln was known to have attended at least a dozen performances at the theatre. At this performance, Lincoln was impressed with the young actor’s energy and passed along a message backstage asking if he could meet the actor. Booth, an outspoken supporter of the South, declined the request.

Then on the night on which he would be assassinated, President Lincoln told William Crook, his bodyguard, about a dream. “Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.” Crook beseeched him not to go to Ford’s theater that night, but Lincoln demurred saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be killed that night for when they departed for the theatre, Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook instead of “goodnight.” He would be dead the following day.

Following the assassination, the U.S. Government appropriated the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation. And less than three years after opening as a theatre, an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.

After that, the building was used as an office building, and served as a facility for the War Department. Then in 1893, part of the building collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 22 clerks and injuring another 68. The building was repaired, but was used as a government warehouse after that.

Decades later, and more than 100 years after President Lincoln’s death, it was again renovated, and then re-opened as a theatre in 1968. During the 2000’s it was renovated yet again, opening on February 12, 2009, in commemoration of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today Ford’s Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as one of two buildings which comprise the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the other being the Petersen House. It remains a working theatre, producing plays, musicals and other works that entertain while often examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy. And in addition to being an active theatre, it also houses world-class museum, and a learning center named the Center for Education and Leadership.

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Leesylvania State Park

Leesylvania State Park

I’ve found holiday weekends are an ideal opportunity to venture away from the city and explore one of the regional or state parks in the D.C. metro area. So for a Columbus Day weekend ride, I selected Virginia’s Leesylvania State Park. The Park is located on the shores of the Potomac River overlooking Neabsco Creek, about 30 miles south of D.C. in the southeastern part of Prince William County (MAP).

The land where Leesylvania State Park is now located has had a rich history. Native Americans lived on this land for thousands of years, and it was once the site of a former Algonquian Indian village. Records indicate that Capt. John Smith also visited the area in 1608 on his voyage of discovery. It was eventually settled in 1747 by Henry Lee, II, who lived there until his death in 1787. He and his wife had eight children at their home there, including Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and the future father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who was also born there. During the Lee family’s ownership of the land, George Washington is known to have visited there on several occasions, mentioning the visits in his diaries.

Then in 1825 the property was sold to Henry Fairfax. Henry Fairfax was a descendant of Thomas Fairfax, the 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, for whom neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, was named. Fairfax County was formed from the northern part of Prince William County. The land was eventually passed to John Fairfax in 1847. The site was John Fairfax’s boyhood home, and he returned to live on the property in late 1875 after serving as a staff aide to Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet during the Civil War. Fairfax remained there until his death in 1908.

During the Civil War, the land was also used as a small Confederate force and gun emplacement, named the Freestone Point Confederate Battery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, little remains of the physical remnants of the park’s early history. Only a small cornerstone of the Lee House remains, as well as a restored chimney of the Fairfax House. Henry Fairfax and his third wife are buried on the property, as are Henry Lee II and his wife. These archeological sites and the cemetery are accessible by trail, and are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today Leesylvania State Park offers many land and water activities, including hiking, picnicking, fishing and boating. The park includes a playground, four picnic shelters, a small group-only campground, a snack bar, and store and gift shop, and a visitor center. There are also five hiking trails, and a 20-station fitness trail. The park’s water amenities include a natural sand beach, boat launches and a boat storage area, canoe and kayak rentals, and a universally accessible fishing pier. Interestingly, halfway out on the park’s pier is the state line, so by walking out to the end of the pier you are actually in the state of Maryland, which can be seen on the other side of the river, about a mile away by water.  The shortest way to get there by land, however, is over 55 miles.

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The George Gordon Meade Memorial

The George Gordon Meade Memorial

The George Gordon Meade Memorial is a public artwork by American artist Charles Grafly, and is located at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue  (MAP) in northwest D.C. Residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania commissioned the sculpture to commemorate the man who is best known as the Union General who defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, which not only involved the largest number of casualties of the Civil War, but is considered a major turning point of war. The statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Born the eighth of eleven children, George Gordon Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, where his father worked as a U.S. naval officer.  Following his father’s death when he was only 13 years old, Meade’s family found itself on the brink of financial bankruptcy and returned to the United States in 1828 to settle in Pennsylvania.  In 1831, at the age of 16, Meade received an appointment to the United State Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1835. He then served in the U.S. Army briefly during the Seminole War before retiring. He worked in the private sector as a civil engineer until 1842, when he asked to be reinstated to the Army. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and served constructing lighthouses and breakwaters in New Jersey and Florida. Four years later during the Mexican-American War, he was present but saw no major combat at several major battles. He returned to topographical work after the war in near the Great Lakes until his services were again called upon at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Despite being one of the few Union generals who began his life and career in a foreign country, Meade quickly rose through the ranks. Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general, and helped work on the defenses of Washington before joining the army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan. He was involved in the Seven Days battles at Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and Glendale, where he received several serious wounds. After recuperating, he went on to fight at the battle of Second Manassas, the battle of South Mountain, Antietam, the battle of Fredericksburg, and the battle of Chancellorsville. By 1863, Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac, succeeding General Joseph Hooker just one month before meeting and defeating General Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. Subsequent to his victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army, and went on to be involved in the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns, and the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. General-in-Chief of Union Forces Ulysses S. Grant requested that Meade be promoted to major general, which was approved by President Abraham Lincoln. Meade served under General Grant for the last year of the war, but was not present at the surrender of Lee’s army in Appomattox, and was largely overshadowed by Grant.

After the war, Meade returned to Pennsylvania and held several military commands. While still on active duty, he died in1872 in Philadelphia, from complications of his old wounds combined with pneumonia.

The D.C. memorial to Meade consists of a cylinder shaped statue featuring a figure of the General on the front. Meade stands in front of six allegorical figures standing side by side. They represent Loyalty, Chivalry, Fame, Progress, Military Courage and Energy, and were thought by the artist as the traits needed to make a “great” general. Loyalty and Chivalry are shown removing Meade’s cloak, which symbolizes the “cloak of battle.” Loyalty also holds a wreath and garlands above Meade’s head, representing the Meade’s deeds. There is also a figure representing War featured on the back of the memorial. Atop the monument is a gold finial with the state seal of Pennsylvania, and an inscription at the base of the monument reads, “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Major General George Gordon Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg.”

The memorial was originally installed in 1922 at Union Square near the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, but was moved into National Park Service storage in 1966 due to construction. In 1983 it was finally installed at its current location.

 

General Philip Sheridan Memorial

General Philip Sheridan Memorial

The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is located in the center of Sheridan Circle, which is a traffic circle at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd Street (MAP), in the Embassy Row neighborhood of northwest D.C.  A bronze sculpture dedicated in November of1908, it depicts General Sheridan during battle on his horse.  It was sculpted by John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, commonly referred to as Gutzon Borglum, who also produced an enormous carving of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee’s head at Stone Mountain in Georgia, and went on to create his crowning achievement, the Presidential Memorial at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city, and are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Philip Henry Sheridan was a career U.S. Army officer and a Union general during the Civil War.  His military career was noted for his rapid rise, but it did not start off as successfully.  He obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy from Congressman Thomas Ritchey, but only after the congressman’s first candidate was disqualified.  While at West Point, Sheridan was suspended for a year for fighting with a classmate and threatening to run him through with a bayonet in reaction to a perceived insult.  He was allowed to return, and graduated in 1853, but was ranked 34th in his class of only 52 cadets.

His physical stature and appearance most likely did not enhance his career either.  Fully grown, he reached only 5 feet 5 inches tall, a diminutive stature that led to the nickname, “Little Phil.”  And he was even described by Abraham Lincoln as “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

But despite his physical appearance and his career’s less than stellar beginnings, Sheridan went on to achieve great success in his military career.  He demonstrated his capacity for command during assignments on the U.S. frontier and in early Civil War operations.  Sheridan’s successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1864 crushed Confederate General Jubal Early’s cavalry while destroying much of the South’s food supply.  Sheridan was also instrumental in General Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Petersburg, Virginia, after which Lee would soon surrender to Grant in April of 1865 to end the war.  Many contend that his career was also the result of help from influential friends, including his close association with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.  Sheridan eventually became the Commanding General of the U.S. Army in November of 1883, and just before his death in June of 1888, he was promoted to General of the Army of the United States – the same rank achieved by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sheridan also enjoyed a number of other somewhat unusual successes during and after his military career.  In 1871, Sheridan was present in Chicago during the Great Chicago Fire and coordinated military relief efforts.  The mayor, Roswell B. Mason, to calm the panic, placed the city under martial law, and issued a proclamation putting Sheridan in charge.  Sheridan also played an important role in the establishment and protection of Yellowstone National Park, which was officially created in 1872.  Mount Sheridan, which rises more than 10,000 feet and is located within the national park, was named after him.  Sheridan served as the ninth president of the National Rifle Association as well.

On a personal note, in 1875 Sheridan married Irene Rucker, a daughter of Army Quartermaster General Daniel H. Rucker. She was 22 at the time, and he was 44. They had four children.  After the wedding, Sheridan and his wife moved to D.C., where they lived in a house given to them by Chicago citizens in appreciation for Sheridan’s protection of the city during the Great Chicago Fire.  In 1888, at the age of 57, Sheridan suffered a series of debilitating heart attacks.  Knowing that his end was near, Congress promoted him to General of the Army on June 1, 1888.  Sheridan died on August 5, 1888.  He was survived by his wife Irene, who never remarried, saying, “I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living.”

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Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day

Today is Emancipation Day, an official public holiday in D.C. to mark the anniversary of the signing of The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, or simply, The Compensated Emancipation Act.

In 1849, when he was still a Congressman, Abraham Lincoln introduced a plan to eliminate slavery in D.C. through compensated emancipation, but the bill failed. More than a decade later, in December of 1861, another bill was introduced in Congress for the abolition of slavery in D.C. After passing both the House and the Senate, President Abraham Lincoln signed The Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, ending slavery in the nation’s capital. The Act freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned them and offered the newly freed men and women money to emigrate.  However, the Act only affected slavery in D.C., and slavery throughout the country did not officially end until after the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865.

Five days after slavery ended throughout the United States when the American Civil War was drawing to a close with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to General Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln was shot while watching a play with his wife at Ford’s Theatre in D.C. on the night of April 14, 1865.  He died early the next morning, which was 149 years ago, at The Petersen House across the street from the theater.

Based on the passage of the Act, April 16 is now celebrated annually in the city as an official public holiday in D.C.  However, by law, when April 16 falls during a weekend, Emancipation Day is observed on the nearest weekday.  Each year, a series of activities are held during the holiday including a traditional Emancipation Day parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd Street and 14th Street in northwest D.C.

The holiday is also celebrated in other areas of the United States as well as many former British colonies in the Caribbean on various dates in observance of the emancipation of slaves of African origin.

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