A painstaking search for a cemetery

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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A painstaking search for a cemetery

April 17, 1997 
By Pamela Cressey

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The southern 1+ acre portion of the total 5+ acre property owned by Francis L. And Sarah G. Smith at the time of the Civil War. A deed conveying the northern 4+ acres denotes that an African American cemetery, thought to be Freedmen’s Cemetery, was in this southern portion, Map shows the gas station and office building on the site today.

Where is the Freedmen’s Cemetery in Alexandria which has recently come to public attention? The answer depends upon how specific you want to be. In general terms, writers during the Civil War stated its location. Terms such as "across from the Catholic Cemetery" and the "south end of Washington Street" are used by the Alexandria Gazette in 1864 and by a superintendent of contraband in 1866. 

Those geographical directions probably worked just fine for the writers and their contemporaries. After all, Alexandria was a walking city and much smaller than today, the "West End" then was near the King Street Metro Station. The Union soldiers and citizens still left in town may also have been aware of the location because of the high frequency of burials. On the average, one to three African Americans were buried there every day. Although with 34 military hospitals located in and around Alexandria, the townspeople became accustomed to death and funeral processions. Personal diaries document that the drum beat accompanying military processions was heard daily as coffins were transported to Soldier’s Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery.

But just a few blocks away, the military was responsible for burying perhaps thousands of men, women and children who died after coming here and escaping slavery. But to locate the cemetery today, we do not have the same experience to guide us. True, St. Mary’s Cemetery still stands as a landmark on South Washington Street and orients us. Yet, to determine specific boundaries of the cemetery we must turn to documentary evidence and move logically through tax and fire insurance maps, deeds, confiscation records, and eyewitness accounts.

Fortunately, the contraband superintendent provided additional information. He wrote a series of memoranda on January 1, 1866, when he set up a "new system" of recording deaths in a ledger started by his predecessor, Albert Gladwin. According to this notation, the land was seized by the military authority from Francis L. Smith in January 1864 for use as a freedmen’s cemetery. Extensive research by T. Michael Miller, research historian in the Office of Historic Alexandria, has not been able to uncover any deeds filed by the federal government. But Mike just discovered a notice in the Gazette on July 25, 1863, that land was taken under the confiscation act form Smith and 31 other people.

If no deed is available, perhaps maps will solve our puzzle. The G.M. Hopkins map from 1877 shows Smith land on South Washington Street across from St. Mary’s Cemetery. It would appear as if we have our answer. But just to be sure, let’s check later maps. The 1939 City of Alexandria tax assessment map clearly states that a Negro cemetery is at the corner of South Washington and Church streets. Aha, the same location - this must be it!

Yet, if we look carefully at both maps we find that the property boundaries are different. Smith’s land in 1877 appears to extend east into Washington Street. The 1939 map shows a much larger property extending along Church Street from the west side of Columbus Street to 66 feet into Washington Street. The land also juts south along its western border to what was then South Street. When the measurements on the map are compared to the deed boundaries, it is clear that this is the southern 1+acre section of Smith’s larger 5+ acre parcel. An 1868 transaction, sold the northern 4+ acres. It is in this deed that the only mention of the cemetery in a legal document occurs. At the southern edge of the map depicting the 4+ acre block is written "Negro Burying Ground." The search continues for more historic documentation in order to pinpoint the cemetery’s location. We still have not found evidence that shows where the federal government actually buried people on the property, We also do not know whether all the graves were dug within the formal boundaries of Smith’s land.