In the quiet, leafy confines of Elkwood in eastern Culpeper County, Memorial Day weekend brought a brief buzz of unusual activity to the final resting place of members of Brandy Station’s Shiloh Baptist Church.
Six area residents came to pay their respects to the dead, tidy a few graves, walk the cemetery’s grounds, and think about the rural cemetery’s future. They placed American flags where Sgt. Charles H. Chinn and George Thompson, two soldiers who served in regiments of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, lie buried.
Using hand tools, Culpeper County natives Howard Lambert and Eugene Triplett peeled overgrown sod back from cement slabs that protect the side-by-side graves of Chinn, his wife, Sallie, and another person whose gravestone has been pried loose, and lost.
Over the next three months, they plan to make initial improvements to the cemetery. Over the next two to three years, they envision more substantial improvements to include signage, landscaping, established entrances, fencing, a memorial garden with benches to rest and contemplate, and a plaque detailing the cemetery’s history, Lambert said.
“It’s often said that ‘All gave some, and some gave all,’ “ Triplett said. “Our ancestors did both, and it’s time to recognize that fact.”
Lambert said The Freedom Foundation, a tax-deductible nonprofit group based in Oak Hill, Va., plans to erect a historical marker to Sgt. Charles H. Chinn, a formerly enslaved man from Huntsville, Ala., who enlisted in two U.S. Colored Troops regiments—including the 23rd USCT, which fought in Virginia, and the 28th USCT—during the Civil War.
Chinn went on to serve 24 years as a “Buffalo Soldier” cavalryman in the regular Army, out west. He died in 1927, and is buried in Culpeper County’s Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery in Elkwood.
So is Thompson, of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored). A laborer from Mobile, Ala., he enlisted at age 23 in Boston on Sept. 24, 1864.
How both men wound up in Culpeper County is, for now, unclear. Chinn mustered out of the Army in 1891 and later moved to Brandy Station.
Lambert and Triplett, who share an interest in Civil War history, didn’t want the African American soldiers’ graves to be forgotten.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Lambert said. “As Americans, we should never forget to recognize those who contributed so much to make this country what it is today, especially our veterans. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice—especially USCTs, who were often killed for no other reason than serving their country.”
Local lore holds that an Elkwood landowner gave the Reconstruction-era church the small plot of land, which borders a narrow Colonial-period road, to inter members of its congregation. The graveyard—which appears to be integrated—lies 2.5 miles east of the church, which is in the village of Brandy Station. At least 72 people are interred there.
Shiloh’s modern congregation is small and mostly elderly, and just weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and a 2019 fire that destroyed its 19th-century sanctuary. So the two men opted to offer their help in sprucing up its graveyard.
And what better time than Memorial Day weekend? The sacred holiday, which honors the nation’s military dead, began as Decoration Day in the South when Black people put flowers on the fresh graves of Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina—though other communities make competing claims for the holiday’s founding.
Triplett, a Brandy Station resident, is a descendant of a member of the 27th USCT Regiment, which was in Culpeper in May 1864 as the Union’s Overland Campaign got underway. Eugene French Triplett is the great-great grandson of French Menafee Sr., a soldier from Rappahannock Station—known today as Remington—in Fauquier County.
A member of the board of directors of The Freedom Foundation, Triplett has served on the boards of the Culpeper hospital and Free Clinic of Culpeper, and operated an independent pharmacy in Locust Grove.
Established in 2019, the tax-deductible Freedom Foundation is dedicated to recognizing the deeds and legacy of USCT soldiers born in Culpeper County, Culpeper residents who helped secure freedom for its enslaved people, as well as all Black soldiers and their officers during the Civil War.
Local historian Zann Nelson has identified more than 120 USCT soldiers who identified Culpeper as the place of their birth, Lambert said. Foundation members are working to locate descendants of many of the soldiers.
Lambert, an amateur historian and board member of the Brandy Station Foundation, has spent years researching African American history, including how and where USCTs—many of whom were from Virginia—marched into the terrain held by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia. The spring 1864 advance of the USCT regiments in the Culpeper area, across the Rappahannock River, marked Black troops’ entry into Lee’s area of operations.
More than 200,000 African Americans served in the Union army and navy during the Civil War, helping lead them to victory. By war’s end, a tenth of U.S. soldiers were Black.
The foundation’s motivation is to honor the war’s Black soldiers, who were willing to fight, be captured and executed, and to raise awareness of their contributions to the nation, Lambert said.
To that end, the nonprofit has broken ground on a memorial near Madden’s Tavern near Lignum and plans a USCT monument at Brandy Station, Lambert said.
The foundation teamed up with the Piedmont Environmental Council on the former memorial, which will recognize not only USCT soldiers but two nearby historic sites, Madden’s Tavern and Ebenezer Baptist Church. The memorial will be the first of its kind in Culpeper County, the PEC has said.
Kat Imhoff, PEC’s senior conservation fellow, said Lambert’s appreciation for local history meshes well with the council’s emphasis on linking land conservation and historic preservation.