Photos: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved
I say, comrades, what caused the tide of victory to turn in the Union’s favor? Was it not that the great minds of the north were forced, by the reverses they were meeting daily, to assemble in council and decide that they needed help? Whose help did they call for? Why they called for the help of the colored volunteers. But there was some doubt in the minds of the northern statesmen and army officers as to whether the negro would fight. Well, they tried him. Not let’s see whether he fought or not. What does our national cemeteries tell? Why are over 50,000 colored soldiers laying beneath the sod to-day? Why are their bones bleaching in the dust to night? For the privileges we are enjoying to-day. Civil rights, political rights, soldiers’ and sailors’ rights, and religious rights; and we propose to protect those rights, let come what will or may. Let weal or woe, let us survive or perish, we will maintain those rights.
In 1884, Pvt. John S. W. Eagles, of the 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, spoke these words in his address to members of the J. C. Abbott Post No. 15, Grand Army of the Republic, in Wilmington, North Carolina. The post membership was comprised of men who fought in regiments raised from North Carolina volunteers, who had survived the various battles of the Civil War, and returned home to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the bedrock of the post-Civil War African American community, allowing the potential for the very type of independent social and economic development as a people that had been denied them in slavery.
This was no less true in Tidewater, Virginia, where I’ve traced my paternal ancestral roots to the early 1600s. For the military veterans in our family, the fight for true freedom did not end with their military service. They faced constant discrimination, something Pvt. Eagles knew all too well. However, they persevered despite all the obstacles placed in their path. In our area, they helped to build communities like Lincolnsville and Sugar Hill, and Norfolk’s Barboursville. These fathers, brothers, sons, and uncles became lawyers, funeral directors, grocers, doctors, and educators. They paved the way for successive generations to explore opportunities once thought impossible.
The Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Mt. Calvary, Mt. Olive, Fishers, potter’s field), was one of seven cemeteries we visited to plant flags, in honor of their service, their bravery in the face of conflict on and off the field of battle, and the legacies they created. To all of them, our family says, “thank you.” May they rest in peace.