Emerging Scholar Ashley Towle

Towle, AshleyAs part of our partnership with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and Civil War Monitor, we’re pleased to introduce the next of our “Emerging Scholars,” Ashley Towle. Ashley will be presenting her work at the museum’s Grand Opening May 4.

A Tale of Two Cemeteries: African American Memorial Efforts at Arlington and Chalmette

On May 30, 1871, Arlington National Cemetery was the scene of an elaborate Decoration Day ceremony. After giving an address to those in attendance, Frederick Douglass and a procession wound their way through the rows of lavishly decorated graves in the main portion of the cemetery en route to a distant section of the cemetery where black soldiers and black refugees had been laid to rest. When they arrived, they were astonished. In this segregated corner of the cemetery the group found that there was “no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the headboards of these loyal but ignored dead. . . . Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people.”[1]

Angered by the lack of care for these USCT graves, the group hastily arranged an “indignation meeting,” calling on the secretary of war to remove the black soldiers from the segregated portion of the cemetery to the main grounds where they could be appropriately honored.

On that same Decoration Day in Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana, African Americans raised similar concerns to those of Douglass and his followers about the neglect of black soldiers’ graves. William G. Brown, the editor of the Weekly Louisianian, lamented the “thoughtless disregard,” and “studied neglect in regard to the place of burial for the colored soldiers of the Union army,” and informed cemetery officials that by shamelessly allowing these grounds to fall into disarray, they had “outraged the living and insulted the memory of the dead.”

In defiance of the unequal treatment and segregation of USCT graves, Brown suggested that black men and women stay away “from these farces on decoration day. If we are to be insulted by finding white unionists and colored ones buried in separate parts of the same burial ground, let us not lend it sanction by our presence.” Instead of participating in Decoration Days, he proposed that African Americans honor the graves of black soldiers privately, rather than condone the actions of “those who would not recognize our people while living, till the teachings of necessity compelled them, and who insult the survivors of our race by exposing the corpses of these dead heroes to the worst deeds of vandalism.” [2]

The responses of Douglass and Brown at Arlington and Chalmette reveal larger trends in Civil War memorialization among African Americans and the uses to which they put national cemeteries in the Reconstruction era.

African Americans celebrated the inclusion of USCT soldiers in these sacred spaces of rest and repose as it honored the ultimate sacrifice black troops had made in order to preserve the Union. Following the war, African Americans flooded into national cemeteries across the South to pay tribute to Union troops and they organized elaborate parades and celebrations to honor the fallen. The segregated location of USCT graves, however, and the lack of attention national cemetery officials gave to these men frustrated black leaders, and they used it as incontrovertible proof that despite the advances black people had made since Reconstruction, they were still treated as second-class citizens—even in death.

Douglass’s request to have USCT soldiers’ graves moved also reveals how Americans began to memorialize emancipation. In requesting the separation of black soldiers and freedpeople’s graves, Douglass and his constituents attempted to separate the sacrifices that black soldiers had made from those of black civilians. Many of the freedpeople buried in Arlington had risked their lives and fled from slavery in pursuit of freedom during the war, only to perish in “contraband camps” as a result of disease, starvation, or exposure. Although they had struck a blow against slavery by running away, Douglass did not see these refugees’ sacrifice as being equal to that of black soldiers who had seized their freedom through military service.

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who was in charge of Arlington, saw things differently. Prompted to give his position on the matter when Douglass and his supporters urged cemetery officials to move the USCT graves to the main portion of the cemetery, Meigs noted, “all care for the dead is for the sake of the living, and if the colored people generally prefer to have their comrades, who fought for them, taken up again and scattered among the whites,—it can be done.” Meigs reasoned that “these [black soldiers] are buried among their own people, the whole of the colored persons buried at Arlington, were victims of the strife which brought freedom to their race in this country.” By this logic, Meigs concluded, “I believe that hereafter it will be more grateful to their descendants to be able to visit and point to the collected graves of these persons, than to find them scattered through a large cemetery & intermingled with another race.”[3]

For black leaders like Douglass, the inclusion of black soldiers and freedpeople together as victims of the war was unacceptable. African-American leaders continually drew on the mortal offerings black soldiers made in saving the Union as evidence of their fitness for citizenship. For these leaders, black soldiers were not victims of the war, but brave men who voluntarily laid down their lives for their country. Despite their protests, Meigs’s vision won out, and the graves were not moved.[4] Today, this portion of Arlington stands as a reminder of the sacrifices that black soldiers and refugees collectively made in pursuit of freedom.

Chalmette tells a different story. As space in the cemetery began to run out in 1867, cemetery officials puzzled over what to do with the more than 3,000 graves of freedpeople who had been buried there during the war. Ultimately, federal officials decided to remove the graves and place them just outside the walls of the cemetery. The federal government transferred maintenance of the freedpeople’s graveyard to the city of New Orleans, and it subsequently fell into disrepair. By 1873, an army official reported “the graves are now entirely neglected, and the place turned into a pasture and stockyard.” With the removal of the graves of black refugees from the cemetery, the grounds of Chalmette honored the Union soldiers who gave their lives for freedom, and buried the sacrifices freedpeople made in their own pursuit of liberty.[5]

The debates over the removal or inclusion of freedpeople’s graves in national cemeteries demonstrate the different ways that Americans understood the scope of emancipation and hoped to remember this watershed event. The responses of Douglass and Brown to the unequal treatment of USCT graves reveal the great importance that African Americans placed on black military service in advancing equality. From this brief look at Arlington and Chalmette, it’s clear that national cemeteries have much to tell us not only about the Civil War, but how white and black Americans attempted to remember and shape its legacy.


About Ashley Towle

Ashley Towle is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Southern Maine, where she researches and teaches about 19th Century United States history, African-American history, and the history of gender and sexuality. She received her BA in History with a Civil War Era Studies minor from Gettysburg College and a MA and PhD in History from the University of Maryland. She is currently at work on a book manuscript that examines how African Americans in the South used their experiences with death to stake claims to citizenship, civil rights, and equality during Reconstruction.

Ashley got interested in the Civil War when she was in high school. After sitting down one weekend and watching the entirety of Ken Burns’ Civil War with her dad, she was hooked. That summer she managed to convince her parents to take her on a trip to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields. She’s been studying the Civil War era ever since. When she’s not researching or teaching, Ashley enjoys spending time with her family and two dogs, Nola and Chamberlain (yes, he’s named after Joshua Chamberlain).



[1] Washington Chronicle as quoted in Semi-Weekly Louisianian, June 15, 1871.

[2] Weekly Louisianian, June 22, 1871.

[3] F. G. Barbadoes, D. W. Anderson, and W. H. Wormley to W. W. Belknap, August 2, 1871, box 8, Entry 576, Record Group 92, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[4] For a great analysis of this event and Arlington Cemetery in general, see Micki McElya, The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Annual Report of the Supt of Chalmette, La National Cemetery, July 1872, box 54, Entry 576, Record Group 92, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

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