The Washington Post

African American Civil War veterans to be formally recognized at ceremony


The The grave marker of William Taylor before it and the three other gravestones were cleaned in April. (Lee Phillips/Courtesy of the Town of Leesburg)

A century and a half after fighting in a war that transformed their country, four African American veterans of the Civil War whose remains are buried at Mount Zion Community Cemetery in Leesburg will be formally recognized for their role in Loudoun County’s history.

Outside the cemetery gates, a new Civil War Trails sign — sponsored by the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and the Mosby Heritage Area Association — was installed Monday afternoon and will be formally dedicated at a public ceremony Saturday. It is the first historical marker in Loudoun to specifically recognize the service of African American Civil War veterans, said Kevin Grigsby, a local historian and author of the book “From Loudoun to Glory,” about the lives of African Americans in Loudoun during the Civil War.

Although only four veterans are named on the sign — James Gaskins of the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry, Joseph Waters of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, William Taylor of the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry and John W. Langford of the U.S. Navy — Saturday’s program will honor all African Americans from Loudoun who served in the Union Army and Navy. Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd will read a message from President Obama, event organizers said.

Of the nearly 300 documented African American Civil War soldiers and sailors from Loudoun, only about 20 settled in the county after the war, Grigsby said. After the war, they returned to little fanfare.

“When they came back, there weren’t parades for them. There weren’t monuments,” Grigsby said. “They came back to a community that soon gave rise to Jim Crow, and they could never openly celebrate that sense of victory that they felt after the war.”

Saturday’s sign dedication, he said, “gives these men the proper acknowledgment that they never got 150 years ago.”

The dedication will begin at the Senior Center of Leesburg, where a community choir will perform and Grigsby will deliver the keynote speech. The program will move to Mount Zion Community Cemetery, where the new Virginia Civil War Trails sign will be dedicated and wreaths will be placed on the headstones of the four African American veterans buried there. A rifle salute will follow, and local buglers will play “Taps,” organizers said.

Descendants of the veterans, or community members with special connections to them, will place the wreaths, Grigsby said.

Umstattd, a U.S. Navy veteran, said she was particularly touched to have the opportunity to honor John W. Langford, who also served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

“For me, as a U.S. Naval veteran, being able to lay a wreath at the tombstone of John W. Langford is a tremendous honor,” she said in an e-mail. “We believe Langford was the only African American Loudoun County resident to have served in the U.S. (Union) Navy during the Civil War. It is important to formally acknowledge his service to our country, and his legacy.”

Although Loudoun was a unique community in the commonwealth — home to Union supporters and veterans of the Loudoun Rangers, the only cavalry unit in the state to fight for the Union — the area was predominantly aligned with the Confederacy after the Civil War, Grigsby said.

“For African Americans, there was no assimilating back,” he said. “Legally, they were free, but there was still a long march toward equality.”

Over the course of that long march, many of their Civil War-era stories were lost, Grigsby said.

“These were stories, unfortunately, that they did not pass down, and that goes back to survival,” he said. “You wanted to protect your children and grandchildren, and so you did not pass that story down to them.”

Grigsby said he hopes that the community’s efforts to honor and remember the veterans at Mount Zion might inspire local groups to do the same for African American Civil War-era soldiers and sailors who were interred in several other Loudoun cemeteries that are listed on the new sign.

“Hopefully, there might be another organization out there that might say, ‘Hey, why don’t we restore the grave markers or have some similar program?’ ” Grigsby said. “It doesn’t have to be as grand as this one, but just to acknowledge and pay tribute to them. . . . This is a first step, but it shows how far we have come as a community.”

The dedication Saturday is open to the public and will begin at 2 p.m. at the Senior Center of Leesburg, 102 North St. NW. It will continue at Mount Zion Community Cemetery, 201 Old Waterford Rd. NW, Leesburg.

Caitlin Gibson is a feature writer at The Washington Post.

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