History buffs in Alexandria have marked January 22, 2017 on their calendars as the second season debut of Mercy Street. They’ve also been enjoying lectures that have piggy-backed on the success of the PBS series and some of its story lines.
This past weekend Audrey Davis and Fran Bromberg talked about the establishment and archaeological work done at Contraband and Freedman’s Cemetery, as well as touching on some of the stories that took place when these freedom seeking refugees arrived in Alexandria during the Civil War.
Last night, Chandra Manning lectured on the plight of contraband and talked about her new book (“Troubled Refuge”) on their stories. The interactions of these heroic peoples with Union soldiers and officials are windows to understanding how an enslaved person self-emancipated and took the uncertain journey from shackle to citizen.
Black history and the story of emancipation is all around Alexandria. Coming up next Wednesday at the Lyceum, we will learn about the struggle for freedom that took place steps from the intersection of Duke Street and Route One. It’s hard to imagine now, but the square block formed by S. West, Duke, S. Payne and Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria, filled with residential homes, was once the scene of many stories of civil rights seekers during the Civil War.
Named for Toussaint Louverture (1743-1804), who led a successful slave revolt in Haiti, L’Ouverture Hospital stretched across much of this block. Union soldiers built the facilities in 1864 in order to give medical care to U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
On the heels of Dr. Manning’s lecture, Charles Joyce, a researcher at Kansas University, will speak at the Lyceum next Wednesday. His topic will be the history a photograph of 11 members of the U.S. Colored Troops taken at the L’Overture Hospital.
Joyce is a long-time collector and dealer of Civil War photography. He has written about the photograph for the University of Kansas, Kenneth Spence Research Library.
Images of U. S. Colored Troops, as they were officially designated, in such a grouping are themselves relatively rare, but what makes this image truly remarkable is that each soldier is identified on the pasteboard mount by a penciled notation, written in a very distinctive hand.
Joyce believes the soldiers were an Honor Guard for a deceased private. Some of them were wounded at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. He will tell to what happened to some of these colored troops after the Civil War.
A copy of the photograph was given to Francis Snow in 1864. Snow (1840-1908), a delegate with the U.S. Christian Commission, kept a journal while working for the Commission in Alexandria in the summer of 1864. He helped care for the wounded at the hospital. Joyce notes that someone sent a copy of the image to Snow, who had developed emotional ties to the soldiers. He wrote down their names and kept the photo.
In terms of audience draw, the producers of Mercy Street know what they are doing by choosing to show a medical drama.
But I can’t help but wish for a series that would tell the story of the Civil War through the eyes of these contrabands and black soldiers. In order to understand what happened during the Civil War, we have to learn about the unique saga of these seekers of freedom.