In July 2019 after a week researching USCT pensions at the National Archives, I spent a Saturday morning at the Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia. The heat was unbearable even at 7:30 a.m., and the sunscreen in my eyes had me frustrated. But I reminded myself to remember where I was and just how much the men there had suffered and sacrificed for our nation.
Men like Lewis Powell, buried in Hampton Section E. In the spring of 1864, the 30-year-old laborer enrolled in Frederick, Maryland, as a drafted soldier. On June 14, Powell mustered into Company A, 30th United States Colored Infantry, for a three-year term.
The private served with his regiment as the Army of the Potomac laid siege to the Petersburg and Richmond fronts that summer and fall. Powell was present with his company at the Battle of the Crater, Weldon Railroad, Poplar Grove Church, Boydton Plank Road, Hatcher’s Run, and the first attempt on Fort Fisher in December 1864.
On January 4, 1865, officers reported Powell sick on the company muster. Diarrhea had weakened the black soldier and prevented him from reporting for duty. Weeks later it became so bad that he was admitted to the U. S. General hospital at Fort Monroe, where nearby Lincoln and Seward had recently met with Alexander Stephens and two other officials at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference.
On February 19, the private succumbed to his illness and like “Every soldier who dies in the hospital, black or white” he was “honored with a military funeral.” Attendants buried Powell in the nearby cemetery created for hospital patients. It is unknown if anyone was notified of the soldier’s death, or if there were any family members to collect his effects. No mother, wife, or children ever attempted to obtain a pension in his name. All that is known is that he told the officers who mustered him into service that he was born in Montgomery County, Maryland.
A few years later, reburial crews moved Powell to grave 214, Section E, in the Hampton National Cemetery, about two miles from Fort Monroe. Although burials began in 1862, it was 1866 before the federal government designated it as a national cemetery and began the process of re-interring some of the war’s dead.
Lewis Powell’s legacy as an African American who died in service to his nation is recognized by his burial in this national cemetery with a Civil War headstone – as it should be. But it is also marred. Powell’s gravestone faces, only three sites to the left, a 42” by 28” by 18” granite monument that reads, “To Our Confederate Dead.” And in the six long rows between Powell and the back of the hallowed ground (and in Section D which has the same monument) lie 272 men who served in the Confederate military.
It had been a quiet, solitary morning as I walked the grounds, but just as I came upon Powell’s headstone the Hampton University band began to practice on the campus that surrounds the cemetery. The juxtaposition of it all – a USCT grave, the HBCU founded in 1868, and the closeness of the 272 white Southern men who gave their lives for a cause that sought to prevent this moment – was a jarring reminder of how damaging the Lost Cause narrative has been and continues to be.
I remained troubled by the sight of that monument so close to Lewis Powell (and the many other African American soldiers interred there) the entirety of my ten-hour drive back to Ohio. The secluded nature of the cemetery might preclude it from the high-profile debates over Civil War statuary, but in some ways, it seems to me, it should matter even more to us.