Three unidentified Black Civil War soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops were properly honored last weekend 157 years after they were lined up and shot execution-style and left on the side of a road in Virginia.
Thanks to the efforts of Howard Lambert, who heads the nonprofit organization Freedom Foundation, and in partnership with Civil War Trails and the Piedmont Environmental Council, Lambert was able to commemorate the deceased servicemen with a granite obelisk in a ceremony at Maddensville Historic Site on Madden’s Tavern Road in Culpepper County in northern Virginia.
The structure memorializes each of the three men and is accompanied by three historical markers from Civil War Trails that cover other parts of the site’s history. The tribute was made in part by volunteers like Lambert and other historians, Ebenezer Baptist Church members, and descendants of USCT soldiers.
“We don’t know their identities, nor do we know precisely where they’re buried, but we know what happened and that they lay nearby,” Lambert, a native of Culpeper County who describes himself as an enthusiast of history regarding the U.S. Colored Troops, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
He continued, “This is dedicated to those men, who made the ultimate sacrifice. This will be the first site dedicated to United States Colored Troops (USCT) in Culpeper County, arguably the most fought-over county during the entire Civil War.”
Lambert believes the three soldiers were most likely captured while guarding supply wagons for soldiers fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness. Their capture and execution was documented in the journal of Private Byrd Willis, an archive Lambert came across during his research.
“We captured three Negro soldiers, the first we had seen,” Private Willis wrote on May 8, 1864. “They were taken out on the roadside and shot and their bodies left there.”
Lambert said coming across those lines was “a chilling experience.” He added, “It was like a common occurrence. No ceremony, just, ‘Oh, we lined ’em up and shot ’em.’”
The site also honored Willis Madden, a free Black man whose mother had once been enslaved by former President James Madison. Madden later went on to open the only Black-owned and Black-operated tavern in the Virginia Piedmont in 1840. Madden was reportedly highly respected and well known for his generosity.
“To me, it’s like the American story: You work hard, you start your own business, and you do well,” Lambert said. “And he’s certainly a symbol of that.”