The stories of African American soldiers and families are all too often overlooked when it comes to American Civil War history. But theirs are stories well worth learning.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is the African American Civil War Memorial?
- What’s the History of the Memorial?
- Where is the African American Civil War Memorial?
- 5 Things You Can’t Miss at the African American Civil War Memorial
After all, African Americans comprised just one percent of the Union population at the time of the Civil War. But the “United States Colored Troops” made up more than 10% of the Union Army and around 25% of the Union Navy.
The African American Civil War Memorial recognizes the role of African American soldiers and service members in the war between north and south. It tells the story of more than 200,000 national heroes, many of whom died in battle. Most of all, the memorial serves to right the wrong of those soldiers’ stories going untold for so long.
You can learn more about the African American Civil War Memorial, below.
What is the African American Civil War Memorial?
The African American Civil War Memorial consists of a historical museum (the African American Civil War Museum) and memorial sculpture. Together, the memorial sculpture and the museum make up the African American Civil War Memorial.
The sculpture at the American Civil War Memorial is called the Spirit of Freedom. Along with the adjacent museum, the memorial commemorates the service of around 209,145 African American soldiers who served in the Civil War.
The memorial also commemorates around 7,000 European American soldiers and 2,145 Hispanic American soldiers. A total of approximately 220,000 soldiers and 20,000 Navy servicemen are honored by the memorial.
What’s the History of the Memorial?
The African American Civil War Memorial tells a largely untold story: that of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). But how did the memorial come to be?
The African American Civil War Memorial started with a bill in Congress. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, of Washington DC, presented the bill in 1992.
Later that same year, the “African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum” was incorporated. The Foundation set forward to tell the story of African American soldiers and the part they played in the American Civil War.
Ed Hamilton and the Spirit of Freedom
In 1993, the “District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities” commissioned a sculpture to feature as part of the eventual memorial. They chose sculptor Ed Hamilton from Louisville, Kentucky to design the centerpiece.
The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum then set to work developing the rest of the memorial.
With the leadership of Dr. Frank Smith Jr., the Foundation completed the memorial in Washington DC in 1998. They dedicated the memorial to the soldiers who fought for freedom during the American Civil War and named the sculptural centerpiece the Spirit of Freedom.
The African American Civil War Museum
The African American Civil War Museum, located across the street from the memorial sculpture, opened in 1999. It was originally located two blocks west of the memorial sculpture site.
In 2011, the museum moved to its permanent location across the street from the memorial.
Where is the African American Civil War Memorial?
The African American Civil War Memorial is located in Washington DC, at the intersection of Vermont Avenue, U Street NW, and 10th Street.
The Foundation that first commissioned the statue and dedicated the memorial in 1992 chose this location for a specific reason. It’s at the heart of DC’s historic “U Street District,” which is a rich center of African American culture and history.
The African American Civil War Museum sits across the street from the memorial sculpture, at 1925 Vermont Avenue in Washington DC. It’s housed in the historic Grimke Building. The building’s namesake, Archibald Grimke, was born a slave in 1849. He eventually went on to become the second African American to graduate from Harvard Law School.
5 Things You Can’t Miss at the African American Civil War Memorial
If you have the chance to visit the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC, these are the features to look out for.
1. The Spirit of Freedom
The centerpiece of the African American Civil War memorial is a sculpture called the Spirit of Freedom. Sculptor Ed Hamilton created the nine-foot bronze piece to memorialize the African Americans who served in the Civil War.
The Spirit of Freedom depicts three Army infantrymen and a Navy sailor on one side, weapons in hand. The other side of the sculpture shows a soldier with his family, including two small children.
The Spirit of Freedom illustrates soldiers as they would have looked defending freedom for all Americans in the Civil War. At the same time, it demonstrates the heartbreaking sacrifices made by soldiers’ families.
2. Wall of Honor
If you visit the memorial, you’ll find a walking path with short, curved wall panels lining its sides. Inscribed in the wall panels are the names of the many men who died serving their country in the battles of the Civil War.
The Spirit of Freedom depicts soldiers serving in the Civil War as a general concept. But all along the Wall of Honor, you can read the actual names of African American servicemen who fought for the Union. The names inscribed on the Wall of Honor are arranged by regiment within the United States Colored Troops.
3. Plaza inscriptions and quotes
The Spirit of Freedom sculpture sites on a marble pedestal within the memorial plaza. When you visit the site, keep an eye out for the multiple inscriptions and quotes on the pedestal and around the plaza.
On one side of the marble pedestal, you’ll find the inscription of the title, Spirit of Freedom. On the other side of the marble stand, you can observe the inscription, “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond.” This signifies the site’s dedication to the African American units who served the Union Army on behalf of freedom in the Civil War.
On the wall of the plaza is inscribed the 1863 Fredrick Douglas quote:
“Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. Better even die free than to live as slaves.”
4. African American Civil War Museum
The Spirit of Freedom sculpture might be at the heart of the African American Civil War Memorial, but don’t forget about the culturally- and historically-invaluable museum across the street.
The African American Civil War Museum holds countless photographs, newspaper clippings, and uniforms and weaponry from the Civil War. It provides a glimpse into the sacrifices made and the hardships endured by African Americans during the Civil War years, including civilians and soldiers alike.
The museum also gives researchers, visitors, and descendants of the United States Colored Troops the opportunity to better understand African American Civil War stories.
5. Nearby Landmarks
If you’ve already toured the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, you might have time to visit some nearby attractions.
Historic U Street District
The African American Civil War Memorial is at the heart of the culturally-vibrant U Street District. If you’re in the neighborhood visiting the memorial and the museum, consider taking in the greater, Victorian-era district nearby. The U Street District features 12 unique landmarks, including those listed below.
At 1910 Vermont Avenue is the historic home of Lillian Evans Tibbs, known as Madame Evanti. Tibbs was the first internationally famous African American opera performer.
Located at 1215 U Street is the Lincoln Theatre. Built in 1921, the theatre was a significant collaboration between the designer Reginald Geare and a leading Washington theater operator, Harry M. Crandall. The Lincoln Theater served as a first-run venue for African American Clientele.
Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ
This unique architectural landmark is located at 1701 11th Street. It was designed in 1928 by Howard Wright Cutler, and it’s home to an influential religious congregation to this day.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
A National Historic Site of the District of Columbia, the Council House was the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. It was also the last DC home of Mary McLeod Bethune, who spearheaded the development of programs supporting African American women. The Council House is now a National Parks Site.
Visiting the African American Civil War Memorial
If you’re planning to visit the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC, make sure to plan ahead. You can visit the Spirit of Freedom any time you’d like, but if you want to visit the museum, keep an eye out for special events.
The Museum often holds re-enactments, seminars, and other events that can help you learn even more about the freedom-fighters who sacrificed everything during the American Civil War.
- “African American Civil War Memorial.” National Park Service. www.nps.gov/afam/index.htm
- “Memorial & Museum History.” African American Civil War Memorial Museum. www.afroamcivilwar.org/
- “Greater U Street Historic District.” National Park Service. www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc63.htm