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Chesapeake's African American heritage dates back to the American Revolution when Africans, enslaved by the British, fought as the Royal Ethiopian Regiment in the Battle of Great Bridge under Lord Dunmore. Africans served on both sides in the Revolution, and today a monument provided by the Great Bridge chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) stands at Chesapeake City Hall and pays homage to the 7,000 Africans who fought alongside American colonists at Great Bridge.
Enslaved African Americans' contribution to the new nation extended well beyond their military service, however. They were, in fact, the primary source of labor for the initial construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal. Begun in 1793, digging of the canal and clearing of adjoining land was done entirely by hand, mostly by local hired slaves, whose owners were paid a fee for the slaves' services. Laborers had to provide their own tools, but the pay was good, and many slaves were able to keep the surplus that they earned, allowing them to experience a state of quasi-freedom.
The Great Dismal Swamp also provided refuge to runaway slaves and was even the hideout of Nat Turner's rebels as they plotted rebellion against local slaveowners in 1831. Because the Great Dismal Swamp offered both refuge and safe passage for runaway slaves, it was recently named to the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
With the onset of the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp Canal fell into disrepair, and the people who lived along its banks saw the canal change hands several times. In 1863, Union Brigadier General Edward Augustus Wild led two regiments of United States Colored Troops south along the canal bank, laying waste to the property of Southern sympathizers and taking white women hostage in an effort to protect black soldiers held prisoner by Confederate guerrillas in the area.
African Americans from Norfolk County (now Chesapeake) played a considerable role in the Civil War. The free black community of Cuffeytown/Longridge sent more troops to defend the Union and eradicate slavery than any other community of African Americans in Virginia. Cuffeytown/Longridge is the oldest continuously occupied community of free-born Africans in Virginia, and many of its current residents can trace their ancestry to the community's 18th-century inhabitants. Of the 40 free Cuffeytown/Longridge residents who volunteered service to the Union in 1861, 13 are interred at the Cuffeytown Historic Cemetery, which is also part of the Virginia Civil War Trail.
To explore the many sites of African American history in Cheapeake, you can take the self-guided driving tour or contaact the Bells Mill Historical Research and Restoration Society for guided tours of Cuffeytown and several other historic areas. (757-547-5542)