Tracing the steps of a Civil War veteran: James Lewis of Waterford

The Mosby Heritage Area is home to a number of historic villages, and none perhaps is better preserved than Waterford. Waterford today is much as it was at the close of the 19th century. Storybook houses line shaded avenues, brick storefronts are festooned with flags, and the residents’ commitment to living in a historic town makes Waterford feel very American, but at the same time very Old World.

In a town once populated by secessionists, abolitionists, slaves, and patriots, it’s no wonder there are fascinating stories behind every corner. One such story is the life of James Lewis, who was born into slavery in Waterford around 1844. At this time, Waterford was home to a large Quaker population and at least 10 free black families. The free blacks lived in the same neighborhoods as the white folk, but slave auctions still took place on the main street. By 1860 James, his mother, and his siblings were freed and living in Waterford. And then the Civil War came.

This sentinel stands along the route James Lewis may have walked to and from his home on Butcher’s Row

Waterford was one of only two districts in Loudoun to vote overwhelmingly against secession, but when Virginia left the Union, several Waterford men fought under the Confederate stars and bars. Early in the war black Americans were not eligible to become soldiers, but as soon as black soldiers were approved to join the U.S. military, thousands flocked to enlistment stations. Teenage James Lewis from Waterford was one of them, and he enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. From 1863 he served further south on the battlefields and picket lines of Florida and South Carolina. At least seven other enslaved or freeborn black Americans from Waterford enlisted with the Union Army, either with state outfits like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, or with the nation’s first U.S. Colored Troops regiments. After the war many southern black soldiers settled in Ohio, New York, or even Texas, but James Lewis came home to Virginia.

Built in 1866, the Second St. School was the first school for blacks in Waterford. It also hosted church functions

Together with their Quaker neighbors, the black community built a one-room school house to teach black children and to serve as a church. They saved money for decades to establish the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891.

Visitors to Waterford can trace Lewis’ steps from the church up a long lane to his home, a route he would have taken while he and the other congregants were building the house of worship. Because free blacks at this time often worked at day labor, he and the other laborers would have built the sanctuary at night, by lantern light. The John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church served the black community in Waterford until 1968.

By the turn of the century James Lewis was an old man. His wife Mary passed away in 1901, but James remained at his two story home on Butcher’s Row. James left no account of his life or his military service, it’s possible he never learned to read or write. However, his handiwork as a stonemason is evident throughout the village. Both the stone wall next to his home (below left) and the stone foundation of the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal church (below right) were built with his hands. It’s unknown how many other homes, shops, or walls were laid by James Lewis in Waterford and the surrounding area.

Lewis passed away sometime after 1910, and his remains rest in the colored section of the Waterford Union of Churches Cemetery. Here neighbor rests by neighbor, enslaver rests by freedman, and Confederate rests by Federal. Among the humble and worn graves of his black countrymen, James Lewis’ small but proud headstone reminds us of Virginia’s sons who served their country and community during enslavement and into freedom.

Waterford contains a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stories, and we look forward to sharing more of them here. Once you See Waterford, be sure to Save it and Pass it on!

*For those interested in learning more about black soldiers from Loudoun County, we recommend reading “From Loudoun To Glory: The Role of African-Americans from Loudoun County in the Civil War” by Kevin Dulany Grigsby.

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions

  1. What different kinds of people lived in Waterford before the Civil War?
  2. Why do you think enslaved and free black Americans fought for the United States?
  3. How did James Lewis help his hometown after the Civil War?

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