The Civil War sesquicentennial doesn’t just mark the 150th anniversary of a war. It also honors the freedom of 4 million enslaved humans. Richmond, Va. — once a center of slave trade and the capital of the Confederacy — is confronting its past head on, calling its sesquicentennial commemoration the Civil War and Emancipation 150th Anniversary.
Though Abraham Lincoln didn’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation until Jan. 1, 1863, emancipation began when the war did, says Edward Ayres, University of Richmond president and leader of a committee planning the commemoration. “African-Americans began freeing themselves at the first opportunity, which was indeed at Fort Monroe, where they went to offer their aid to Benjamin Butler and the Union Army,” Ayers said during an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post.
The Hampton, Va., fort was nicknamed Freedom’s Fortress after Maj. Gen. Butler declared May 27, 1861, that escaping slaves who reached Union lines wouldn’t be returned to bondage. Slaves fled to the Union Army around the fort, which served as Butler’s Virginia headquarters.
“There can be no doubt that slavery was at the heart of the struggles between North and South,” Ayres says. “The war began to preserve the Union, and then Lincoln and his allies came to see that goal could not be accomplished without destroying slavery and the Confederate army [that] slavery fed and clothed.”
Visitors can witness the city’s role in the slave trade at sites along the Richmond Slave Trail. The walking trail connects places including Manchester Docks, a port that made Richmond the East Coast’s largest source of slaves from 1830 to 1860; slave markets where an estimated 300,000 slaves were sold; the recently excavated Lumpkin’s Slave Jail; and the site of the Negro Burial Ground (now mostly covered by a highway and parking area). Find more sesquicentennial observances at OntoRichmond.com.
From the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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