In preparation for the future, Alexandria unearthed some of its past yesterday, making for a poignant Veterans Day.

An archaeological dig has proven finally that a piece of land near the Capital Beltway in Old Town Alexandria was a 19th-century burial ground for nearly 2,000 African Americans, including some who fought in the Civil War.

Lighting candles in defiance of the rain and praying softly against the background roar of the Beltway, about 60 Alexandrians huddled together at Freedmen's Cemetery to honor that proof and their dead.

"This service marks the confirmation of the existence of graves on this site," said Lillie Finklea, director of the Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery, a group that in 1997 spearheaded efforts to commemorate the cemetery, despite the encroachment of roads and a gas station on part of it.

"It confirms what we knew and what we felt," she said.

Ironically, the prospect of more construction nearby gave Finklea's campaign a boost. The dig was funded by the project to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The cemetery is a large patch of land extending from South Washington Street a few blocks west, and some parts of approaches to the new Wilson Bridge will lie close to it. The bridge project, funded by the government, had to verify the existence and boundaries of the cemetery to avoid it during construction.

Undisturbed soil looks very different from disrupted soil, even if the disruption occurred more than a century ago, said archaeologist Bernard W. Slaughter, field director for the dig. His team could determine that caskets had once been lowered without having to disturb those caskets or remains.

"You done good," Finklea said to the archaeologists yesterday. "I'm very pleased with what you found."

Black veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars laid yellow wreaths on the ground at the close of the ceremony. One of them, Cordell Creditt, an Army veteran with American Legion Post 129, said the ceremony "signifies that the men who went before us are finally honored."

City Manager Vola Lawson told those gathered that they knew they were standing on sacred ground, celebrating "a part of our history that was buried also."

Many infants and children were buried at the cemetery, said city historian T. Michael Miller, as well as escaped slaves--referred to by slave owners as "contraband"--and soldiers. The soldiers who survived argued that their brothers should be buried not in a separate cemetery, but with white soldiers at Alexandria National Cemetery. Their words compelled someone, because the soldiers' bodies were exhumed and reburied in the 1860s. Other graves remain intact at the original site.

Near the end of the ceremony, Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, read an anonymous quote from a black Civil War soldier:

"We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army, we have carefully left the comforts of home and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion. . . . We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our country's flag."

CAPTION: From left, Cordell Creditt, Charles Jones and Marvin Barber attend ceremony at 19th-century black burial ground in Old Town. Clarence Cooper is at rear.