Charlottesville commemorates Liberation and Freedom days on March 3 -6, celebrating the arrival of Union Cavalry into the area in 1865. The surrender by local town and university officials led to the liberation of more than half of the town’s population. African-Americans made up 53.3% of the population at the time and thousands of enslaved residents took advantage of the Union occupation as an opportunity for escape.
On March 3,1865, Union troops led by Generals Philip Sheridan and George Custer arrived on the outskirts of University grounds (on Ivy Road near St. Anne’s-Belfield School). City officials and University professors met the troops there – Mayor Fowler surrendered the town, and the professors asked that the university be protected, fearing that it might go up in flames as Virginia Military Institute (VMI) had done. Custer agreed and posted a guard during the three-day occupation. The University suffered little damage, but the Charlottesville Manufacturing Company (later the Charlottesville Woolen Mills) which produced Confederate uniforms was burned to the ground.
Three days later, on March 6, Sheridan's troops left town, riding south in the direction of Scottsville. Some of Charlottesville's enslaved African Americans used the Union departure as a means of escape. One Union soldier wrote later that there was a “train of negroes now numbered thousands and was constantly increasing." When the war ended a month later with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, over half of the population of Albemarle and Charlottesville became officially free and that began a period of hope and intense political activity for African Americans in the area during the period of Reconstruction. The establishment of the Jefferson School for black students was one of those accomplishments.
In 2017, the Charlottesville City Council established March 3 as a holiday to commemorate the arrival of Union troops and the liberation of 14,000 enslaved people living in the city and county at the time. Then in 2019, councilors voted 4-1 to remove Jefferson’s birthday on April 13 as an official city holiday and replace it with the March 3 “Liberation and Freedom Days”.
Since 2018 events have been held in Charlottesville to commemorate the liberation of our city. For the last two years Beloved Community Cville has hosted the kick-off event that focused on the human trafficking which took place in Historic Court Square. The “Slave Auction Block Vigil: Honoring the Ancestors” was held in 2020 and 2021 to acknowledge the trauma which took place there and honor the ancestors. This year's local events can be found in the Feb. 28th issue of our newsletter. We encourage you to join in!
To learn more:
encyclopediavirginia.org: “Union Occupation of Charlottesville (1865)”
cvilletomorrow.org: “Freedom and Liberty Day Illuminates “lost history” of black leadership”