Opened in 1998 in Washington, D.C., the national African American Civil War Memorial commemorates the more than 200,000 African Americans who served in the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Shown here are the front and rear views of the life-sized bronze sculpture that is the centerpiece of the memorial site. Situated in a park-like plaza at 10th and U Streets in the nation’s capital, the Civil War memorial sculpture is the work of Ed Hamilton, an African American artist from Louisville, Ky. Easy to reach from anywhere in Washington, the site is located directly adjacent to the “U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” station of the city’s METRO subway system.
The sculpture is partially encircled by a series of low, curving walls faced with stainless steel plaques listing the names of the 209,145 African Americans who fought for the Union in the war that ended slavery. Large numbers of those who joined the U.S. Colored Troop regiments and Union Navy were newly-freed slaves. Imagine the electrifying emotions former slaves must have felt when they were suddenly trained and armed to go into battle against the army of their former slavemasters. Thirty-five of these African Americans earned the Medal of Honor for their valor in those battles. And by the end of the war, African Americans made up ten percent of the entire Union Army.
Although the Union Army’s land forces were strictly segregated, the Union Navy had routinely enlisted African Americans throughout the decades leading up to the war. At the height of the Civil War, sixteen percent of the Union Navy’s members were African Americans. Five of those sailors received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the sea battles that played a critical role in the Confederacy’s defeat. On the front of the two-sided sculpture are three Union Army soldiers and one Union Navy, sailor. On the rear are figures depicting the parents, wives and children of the African American soldiers who went off to war. Some 68,000 of those servicemen died during that conflict.
One side of the marble pedestal of Ed Hamilton’s sculpture bears the title, “Spirit of Freedom.” On the other side is the text, “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond. This memorial dedicated to those who served in the African American units of the Union Army in the Civil War. The 209,145 names inscribed on these walls commemorate those fighters of freedom.” On the plaza’s highest wall is inscribed this Frederick Douglas 1863 quote: “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. Better even die free than to live slaves.” The African American Civil War Memorial and its affiliated nearby museum — The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum — are the site of annual commemorative events and a steady stream of visitors from around the country. For additional information, see http://www.afroamcivilwar.org.