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Monument honors black Civil War soldiers

The "Spirit of Freedom" honors black Civil War soldiers and sailors  
July 18, 1998
Web posted at: 8:45 p.m. EDT (0045 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thousands of people attended the unveiling Saturday of the nation's first memorial dedicated solely to the black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union cause in the Civil War.

The 11-foot, $2.6 million statue honors the more than 208,000 African-Americans who fought for the Northern states, and the white officers who commanded their units. It is one of the few monuments in the nation marking black military achievements.

The statue is titled "Spirit of Freedom" and features several black figures outfitted for battle on land and at sea.

"The African-American soldiers who served in the Union Army fought not only for the preservation of the Union but for their own freedom from slavery," Army Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, the keynote speaker, said. "Perhaps more than any other men, these soldiers knew the value of freedom."

According to Ballard, 10 percent of the Union's fighters were black and one-third of them died in service. But, despite their contributions, the war veterans struggled for recognition, once the Confederacy surrendered.

Black veterans were not allowed to march in the Union's victory parade in Washington. And in the 1880s, Congress rebuffed efforts by black veteran George Washington Williams to construct a memorial near Howard University.

'The black presence has been invisible'

Hundreds of the soldiers' descendants attended the ceremony, braving sweltering heat. Russell Adams, a historian at Howard University, said the memorial will raise people's consciousness about the fighting role of black soldiers.

"The American South is loaded with Confederate statues; the North is too," he said. "But the black presence has been invisible in statuary form."

The monument is located in the northwest district of Washington, at Vermont Avenue and U Street, in the predominantly black Shaw neighborhood. The neighborhood is named after Col. Robert Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts in the war.

African-American Civil War reenactors participated in the ceremonies. One said he had been waiting a long time for the ceremony that made him "feel so proud."

Memorial a long time coming

Historians say the South's Confederate soldiers, enraged by the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery, were less likely to take black troops alive, killing many who were wounded or trying to surrender.

The black soldiers also faced rampant discrimination in the Union ranks.

The memorial, too, has suffered from repeated delays and budget shortfalls. As a final blow, Saturday's unveiling did not include the full memorial.

Etchings of the names of the 208,943 black soldiers and sailors and their white commanders -- part of architect Ed Hamilton's design -- are not expected to be completed until Veteran's Day. The names will be engraved on metal plaques mounted on black, polished granite walls.

Along with the statue, the memorial includes a nearby museum with displays on the slave trade, abolition and -- most prominently -- black achievements in the Civil War. In the gallery, computer databases allow guests to trace the military backgrounds of their descendants.

"There's a definite record of this now for African-American history," said Vera D. Fuselier, of Pontiac, Michigan, who recently found out that her great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. "Now we need to put that into American history."

Reporter Louise Schiavone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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