Petersburg National Battlefield Opens New Exhibit Honoring Frederick Douglass

By: Sherry Williams Kidd | Email: Click Here
Posted: Mar. 5, 2018 | 1:35 p.m. 

VIRGINIA – The Petersburg National Battlefield, in honor of Black History Month, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass; has opened an exciting new exhibit inside the Eastern Front Unit Visitor Center. The exhibit includes information about the famous abolitionist, as well as the Crater visitor log book signed by Douglass. Visitors will be able to view the Crater visitor log book and the rest of the exhibit until Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

Frederick Douglass signed this logbook when he visited the battlefield on October 31, 1878. The Griffith family purchased and maintained this book when they owned and operated the Crater battlefield as a tourist attraction after the Civil War. Visitors will find the visitor log open to the page showing Douglass’ signature in the Crater exhibition area inside the Eastern Front Visitor Center.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818. After gaining his freedom, he changed his last name to Douglass. He became perhaps the most well-known abolitionist leader in the entire country. He was a staunch advocate for all men and women to have the right to vote, regardless of their race. Douglass was an amazing orator, editor of a newspaper, and wrote three autobiographies. During the Civil War, Douglass campaigned for African-American men to be able to enlist in the United States army. When this finally became possible, through Douglass’ efforts,  two of his own sons enlisted. Douglass’ son, Charles R. Douglass, served in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry.

The Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry was deployed in the Petersburg area in the late spring and summer of 1864.

In early July, 1864, Major General Ambrose Burnside planned an attack, that was to be led by a division within his IX-Corps. This Division was comprised of United States Colored Troops (USCT), that had been extensively trained for the mission. The attack would follow the explosion of gunpowder beneath the Confederate earthworks, that were just east of Petersburg. “History clearly shows that these USCT were the best-trained for this advance assault,” said Grant Gates, Park Ranger. Due to interference by his superior, General George Meade, the black soldiers were the last to advance. Douglass had fought long and hard for African-Americans to serve in the United States/Union Army. These troops had a strong desire to be used in this battle, in their own efforts to secure emancipation and to be considered full-citizens. The battle turned into a fiasco for the Union, in what would become the most famous battle of the Petersburg Campaign.

“The presence of USCT at the Crater was one of the largest concentrations of African-American troops on any Civil War battlefield. When these soldiers finally did make it into the fight, they went further than any other Union division that day,” said Gates.

On October 31, 1878, Frederick Douglass, in company with three local Petersburg residents that had also once been slaves, all visited the Crater battlefield, then under private management as a farm and tourist attraction by William Griffith’s family. That same evening, Douglass attended a political rally in Petersburg.

Frederick Douglass, a great American and historical figure, was not always known to everyone. For a very long time, his name did not appear in our history books. He fought to abolish slavery; for the right of African-Americans to serve in the United States Army, and for the inalienable right of everyone to vote. This exhibit, in honor of Black History Month, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, is going to be open for the next several months. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this exhibit honoring this incredible American, in everyone’s history, could become permanent? History is history—regardless of the month!

The Eastern Front Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield, located at 5001 Siege Road, Petersburg, Virginia, is the location where Union/United States troops made their first major attacks on the City of Petersburg, in mid-June, 1864. Today, visitors can learn more about the history of the site by touring the museum, viewing the 18-minute video, and travelling the four-mile, seven-stop tour. There are also 10-miles of nature trails; suitable for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding.

For more information, please call (804) 732-3531, extension 0.

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