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  • Codie Eash

George Washington Williams and the National African American Civil War Memorial that wasn't built

This story originated as the June 24, 2019, edition of Monday Dedication Monday, a weekly series available via the Facebook page Codie Eash – Writer and Historian that examines speeches delivered at the consecration of public memorials, particularly those which commemorate the Civil War. The original post may be found here.


George Washington Williams was born a free man at Bedford, Pennsylvania, in 1849. Throughout his life, the Keystone State native held many influential public posts, including as a United States soldier, Baptist minister, Ohio state legislator, and African American historian.

In 1887 he published A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. In his 300-plus-page narrative, Williams argued that the Federal government’s victory in the Civil War “was a grand achievement in the history of the Democracy of the world.” It became clear through the conflict’s results that the notion of states’ rights was a “delusion,” he said. Moreover, he stated, the war proved that the U.S. had been “built upon the adamantine foundation of National Unity.”

“But the brightest star, the one that shall shine with undimmed lustre while Republican institutions endure among men, is that which symbolizes the disinthralment of 4,500,000 bondmen,” Williams continued. “To wash out the foul stain of human slavery by the blood of patriots, to elevate the slave to the dignity of a soldier, and to invite him into the arena of civil war, where every element of manhood, every sentiment of patriotism, every attribute of valor could have full play, was an achievement hardly ever vouchsafed to a government before.”[1]

What’s more, Williams pondered, this anomaly was unique to the U.S., a development for which Americans should be proud. “And where upon the face of the whole earth has a race of slaves gone in a single bound from abject, servile subjection to the imperial heights of military accomplishments?” he asked. “History contains no parallel.”[2]

For these reasons, Williams was disheartened that while “villages, towns and cities, counties and States, have erected monuments and cenotaphs to commemorate the valor of their citizens,” none existed on a national level dedicated to black soldiers of the Civil War. “The deathless deeds of the white soldier’s valor are not only emblazoned in song and story, but are carved in marble and bronze,” he noted, and “the surest way to teach national history is in monumental marble and brass.”

“But nowhere in this free land is there a monument to brave Negro soldiers, 36,847 of whom gave up their lives in the struggle for national existence,” Williams bewailed. “Even the appearance of the Negro soldiers in the hundreds of histories of the war has always been incidental. These brave men have had no champion, no one to chronicle their record, teeming with interest and instinct with patriotism.”

“A government of a proud, patriotic, prosperous, and free people would make a magnificent investment by erecting at the capital of the nation a monument dedicated to its brave black soldiers,” Williams continued.

He proposed the marker be built upon the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., an institution dedicated to the education of African Americans and named for the abolitionist Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard—wartime commander of the famed Philadelphia Brigade, Eleventh Corps, and Army of the Tennessee, and chairman of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. Williams laid out plans at the school for a “commanding monument made out of Southern granite, surrounded by a private soldier in great-coat, equipments [sic], fixed bayonet, gun at parade rest, looking south towards the Capitol.”[3]

At each of its four corners, the monument would respectively feature a black artilleryman, cavalryman, infantryman, and sailor. One side would include the text, “A GRATEFUL NATION CONSECRATES THIS MONUMENT TO THE 36,847 NEGRO SOLDIERS WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY. ‘THE COLOURED TROOPS FOUGHT NOBLY.’” Another was supposed to have said, “THEY EARNED THE RIGHT TO BE FREE BY DEEDS OF DESPERATE VALOR; AND IN THE 449 ENGAGEMENTS IN WHICH THEY PARTICIPATED THEY PROVED THEMSELVES WORTHY TO BE INTRUSTED WITH A NATION’S FLAG AND HONOR.” The third inscription would read, “DURING THE CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA, FROM 1861 TO 1865, THERE WERE 178,975 NEGRO SOLDIERS ENROLLED IN THE UNITED STATES VOLUNTEER ARMY. OF THIS NUMBER 90,337 WERE ENLISTED BY AUTHORITY OF THE GOVERNMENT, AND 79,638 WERE ENLISTED BY THE SEVERAL STATES AND TERRITORIES.” Finally, the fourth side would list the names of 16 battles in which black soldiers had been engaged.[4]

Williams acknowledged that his proposed “inscriptions were merely suggestive,” open to emendations by the U.S. Congress. Additionally, he recommended that it would be “eminently proper” to name the park in which the proposed monument might be erected for Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the famous fallen commander of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry—a unit whose largest proportion of enlisted men derived from Pennsylvania.[5]

Shaw “came of a noble race of men, and his broad views of humanity were an inheritance,” Williams reflected; “he was pure as he was just, beautiful as he was good, patriotic as he was brave. He was a born leader of men, and, had he lived, would have attained high rank.”[6]

Such a monument in the federal capital city “would quicken the pulse of national patriotism, it would elevate the feelings of the Negro, it would inform the Present, instruct the Future, and bind the friends of freedom to the generous heart of the nation,” Williams determined. It would also “surely and safely elevate the Negro to a proud place in the history of the nation.” After all, he concluded, “a republic that remembers to defend its defenders in tracing their noble conduct in monumental marble and brass can never decay. Heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s word endures forever. Truth only is immortal.”[7]

In January 1888, Sen. George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to create “a monument near Howard University to the memory of colored soldiers who fell in the service of the Union during the war.” The proposal went to committee and received a $100,000 appropriation (the equivalent of approximately $2.6 million in 2019). In the end, however, it does not appear to have ever been completed.[8]

Ultimately, although Williams’s and Hoar’s plans fizzled out, 110 years later the African American Civil War Memorial was finally erected and dedicated in Washington, D.C., in the form of artist Ed Hamilton’s “The Spirit of Freedom” (located next to the U Street Metro Station). Similarly to Williams’s proposal in 1888, the eventual finished product in 1998 contains sculptural representations of black Civil War soldiers in each branch of the U.S. armed forces. Likewise, the memorial’s Wall of Honor features the names of 209,145 U.S. Colored Troops on 166 separate plaques.[9]


[1] George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1888), 327.

[2] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 327-328.

[3] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 328.

[4] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 329.

[5] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 330, 331.

[6] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 330.

[7] Williams, A History of the Negro Troops, 331, 332.

[8] “A Monument to Colored Soldiers,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 18, 1888, 1; “IN CONGRESS TO-DAY,” Washington Critic (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 19, 1888, 1.



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