The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Procession highlights Memorial Day and Civil War roles of blacks
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Not in 141 years has Fredericksburg seen anything quite like it: More than 100 people, of all ages and races, marching on Memorial Day through the streets toward Fredericksburg National Cemetery to honor its Northern dead.
The mile-plus procession, which began at Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), sought to broaden the area’s Civil War story to note blacks’ important service in the Union army and their role in the earliest postwar honors given their white comrades in arms.
Mimi Dempsey of Spotsylvania County said she was “almost moved to tears, to be honest” by the march and her conversations along the way with fellow participants.
“I realized that it’s not over. We’re working through this,” Dempsey said upon reaching the Willis Hill end of Marye’s Heights. “So I am excited to be part of healing of this historical pain, I guess I’d say.
“I want to bring my kids next year, to insist that they come. This is living history. We’re moving into the future, but we still have division between black and white, between the Confederacy and the Union.”
That’s the sort of wider, deeper and more-inclusive conversation that the National Park Service, which hosted the procession, hopes people will have as the nation observes the war’s sesquicentennial.
A five-man color guard of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, led the procession from the Rappahannock River to the base of the ridge from which Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia repelled Union troops during the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. To avoid traffic incidents, city police blocked off intersections along the way Monday.
The marchers were trailed by several members of the Virginia Flaggers, a Southern heritage group, carrying Confederate battle flags and the bonnie blue flag—unofficial banner of the Confederate States of America. Other flaggers awaited the procession on Lafayette Boulevard near the park’s Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.
Upon reaching Willis Hill after a fast-moving quick-step march, the 23rd’s color guard paused to let everyone cool off and drink water.Then a few members headed up the hill to place bouquets on the graves of three soldiers buried on the cemetery’s high ground:
– Charles Sprow, a former slave of J. Horace Lacy, owner of Chatham Manor in Stafford County and Ellwood Manor in Spotsylvania County. After escaping bondage, Sprow served in the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. Members of his family still live in the Fredericksburg area.
– August Bauman of Massachusetts, a private with the 20th Mass. Reserves, Co. B, who lies one grave over from Sprow. A painter from Germany, he was 24 when he enlisted in April 1864. Captured on Feb. 5, 1865, at Hatcher’s Run during the Petersburg siege, Bauman survived the war, dying in 1918.
– Dr. Urbane Bass, who was mortally wounded treating front-line troops in France during World War I, for which he was posthumously award the Distinguished Service Cross. The area’s first black physician since Reconstruction, Bass was a member of Shiloh Baptist Church (New Site). A Tiffany stained-glass window in St. George’s Episcopal Church bears his image.
Local organizers created the procession in part to note how African–Americans were the first people to regularly place flowers on the graves of U.S. soldiers buried in the National Cemetery, which was built on the northern end of the Fredericksburg battlefield. (Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.)
On Monday, organizers said they hope the event will become a yearly one, adding to the richness of Memorial Day programs in the region.
At the cemetery, the crowd had grown to about 350, the largest Memorial Day gathering there in memory.
After the three graves were decorated, the 23rd USCT and members of two other re-enactment groups—the 13th Virginia Infantry, Company A, and the 3rd U.S. Regulars, Co. K, marched into the cemetery to start the program of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Park Superintendent Russ Smith, Rep. Rob Wittman, R–Montross, and the Rev. Lawrence Davies, Fredericksburg’s mayor for 20 years, offered remarks beside the monument to Gen. Andrew Humphreys and and the Union 5th Corps.
Davies, the keynote speaker, told how the 1871 Decoration Day observance brought African–Americans to Fredericksburg from Washington and Richmond who sought “to show their gratitude to those who died in the war that set them free.”
That tradition continued for years, until white Northern and Southern veterans—trying to bridge their differences—decided to bar blacks from the cemetery tribute, Davies said.
After noting how local newspapers—reflecting prevalent white attitudes of their time—derided the early, multiracial Decoration Day events, the retired minister praised the 2012 program for working to bridge the racial divide.
“In my estimation, today’s observance of Memorial Day at this ceremony marks the completion of at least the structure for the reconciliation process for all the people of this area,” Davies said.
He received a standing ovation.
Other speakers noted that the cemetery’s dead include men of the U.S. Colored Troops (some—like Sprow—from the Fredericksburg area), who fought to preserve the Union after blacks were allowed into the army in 1863 by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029