Just where is the Freedmen’s Cemetery located

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Just where is the Freedmen’s Cemetery located

May 1, 1997 
By Pamela Cressey

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A news item in the Alexandria Gazette on March 4, 1864, provides the only evidence found to date for the beginning of Freedmen’s Cemetery.

In the last column, I asked what might seem like a simple question: Where is the Freedmen’s Cemetery in Alexandria? On the surface, the task of tracking down the cemetery’s boundaries should not be difficult. It was a place where the military buried hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of African Americans during the Civil War. Yet, we can find no evidence above the ground which marks the place or the individuals. Alexandria National Cemetery stands as a silent and public tribute to the black and white soldiers who died here after fighting for their beliefs in freedom. What has happened to the escaped slaves who died from deprivations in Alexandria after seeking freedom? 

Evidence accrued to date suggests that many of these newly freed people are buried under the gas station property at South Washington and Church streets. We do not know the full boundaries of the burying ground, which appears to date from February/March 1864 to January 1869. We also do not know where escaped slaves, who may number in the thousands, were buried from the early part of the War in 1861 until this cemetery opened in 1864. For that matter, no earlier African American cemetery has been located in Alexandria, Freedmen’s Cemetery is the oldest known in town. We have been able to identify a few gravestones of free blacks in church cemeteries along Wilkes Street, but we do not know where the thousands of slaves and free African Americans were buried before the Civil War.

It is perhaps these missing resting places which have spurred such public interest in finding Freedmen’s Cemetery. The map which appeared with the last column showed such legal boundaries for the southern 1 plus acre parcel owned by Francis and Sara Smith. They sold the adjoining plus acres to the north in 1868 to a brick-making company. We do not know whether any freed people were buried in this northern property, only that land across from the Catholic Cemetery was seized from the Smiths’ by the military authority. But even if you confine the burying ground to the Smiths’ southern land, it is possible that graves could still remain under South Washington Street.

Both the Smith and St. Mary’s properties appear to have extended into the street. It is notable that in building the George Washington Memorial Parkway in 1931, an additional cost was incurred for "changing gate posts and rehanging iron gate at Catholic Cemetery." Apparently South Washington Street must have been just a pathway, which was a dead-end just a few blocks farther at Hunting Creek. The graves may also continue west under a parking lot at the terminus of South Columbus Street.

T. Michael Miller with the Office of Historic Alexandria has "dug up" a multitude of historic documents which expand our knowledge on this issue. Mike not only found the Parkway construction records, he also has been pursuing the federal paper trail to clarify the cemetery’s boundaries. Most recently, Mike unearthed fascinating correspondence between the Smiths’ son, Francis Jr., and various federal offices. After the death of Francis Sr. in May 1877, his son attempted to receive a monetary payment for the Freedmen’s Cemetery. Unfortunately the letters do not provide specific boundaries, but they do confirm that burials were on this southern Smith parcel.

Francis Smith, Jr. writes on October 18, 1877, that "Application was made for the payment of one thousand dollars for the lot, and I understand was favorably considered by General O. B. Howard, but that it was arrested in some of the departments. May I ask, first if there are funds properly applicable to such a case, or will I be obliged to go to Congress for relief?" After being routed to the Quarter Master General Office, Smith’s request was given a speedy, but stereotypical government reply on November 8: "An examination thus far made of the records of this office show no light upon the subject, but if more specific data is furnished further research will cheerfully be made. The Freedmen’s Bureau records [are in] the custody of Adg. General of the Army, with whom communications is suggested."

An intriguing issue is raised by Smith’s letter in the following: "the property of my deceased father...was appropriated as a place of burial for colored federal soldiers. Afterwards I believe it was used by the Freedmen’s Bureau for similar purposes." The burial locations of the more than 200 African Americans soldiers who died in Alexandria hospitals are thought to be in Alexandria National Cemetery. Were those men or others buried at Freedmen’s Cemetery? My thanks to Mr. James Smith for calling so promptly last week with his recollections from the depression era, which may help us solve this puzzle.