The county of Culpeper in Virginia has unveiled a memorial dedicated to three African American soldiers who were executed by members of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
The ceremony on November 6, 2021, was attended by the descendants of African American Civil War veterans, the congregation of the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church, and relatives of Willis Madden, who ran the area’s first and only Black-owned-and-operated tavern in the antebellum Piedmont.
The memorial is dedicated to three unknown Black soldiers who were executed by Confederate soldiers in 1864. Information regarding the killings was first discovered in the diary of Private Byrd Willis, who wrote on May 8, 1864: “We captured three Negro soldiers, the first we have seen. They were taken out on the road side and shot and their bodies left there.”
The ceremony was organized by Howard Lambert, head of the Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting Culpeper County’s African American history. Together with Civil War Trails and the Piedmont Environmental Council, they organized for a granite obelisk to be placed in the area near which the three soldiers are believed to be buried.
“We don’t know their identities, nor do we know precisely where they’re buried, but we know what happened and that they lay nearby,” said Lambert. “This is dedicated to those men, who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
The day began with a procession by the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops, a living history organization out of Spotsylvania County. Remarks were then made by Lambert, Chris Miller and Civil War historian John Hennessy, after which members of the 23rd Regiment and descendants of the 27th U.S. Colored Troops removed the obelisk’s covering. Three wreaths were then laid.
During the unveiling, other members of the 23rd Regiment released volley fire, and Dave Boltz, a retired Senior Master Sergeant of the United States Air Force, played taps, a call to remember those who lost their lives while serving their country.
It’s estimated at least 160 battles were fought in Culpeper County during the Civil War. While the area sided with the Confederacy, over one hundred African American men went to serve in the U.S. Colored Troops. “These men who left, they didn’t have to come back,” said Lambert. “They could have stayed at Freedman’s Village and enjoyed their freedom. But they felt the need to free the rest of [the enslaved].”
The Confederacy didn’t recognize the U.S. Colored Troops as soldiers. Instead, they considered them enslaved people in a state of insurrection. This meant they rarely followed the prisoner of war rules often applied to White Union Army troops, opting to either sell their Black prisoners back into slavery or execute them.
Black soldiers were often assigned to guard the rear as White troops moved into position. It’s likely the three unknowns were captured while guarding supply wagons for those fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness.
The historical site also honors Madden, a free Black man whose mother was enslaved by President James Madison. He opened his tavern in 1840, which featured a blacksmith, general store, sleeping quarters for travelers, and a wheelwright shop. Madden was well-respected and purchased acres of farmland in Culpeper County, which he donated to the construction of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“To me, it’s like the American story: You work hard, you start your business, and you do well,” said Lambert of Madden’s accomplishments. “And he’s certainly a symbol of that.”