Today we received word that a new headstone for 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Born enslaved, ca. 1840 in Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia, Martin escaped and enlisted on January 5, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in on January 25th. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, four inches tall, with a “light complexion, black eyes and hair.” His occupation was noted as “laborer.” During the war, he was present with his regiment at Point Lookout, Maryland, Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg and Richmond through December, 1864, and assigned to an ammunition train of the artillery brigade, January to April, 1865. Martin was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, Sergeant on March 23, 1866, and 1st Sergeant on July 28, 1866. He mustered out with the surviving members of his regiment on October 28, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
While enslaved, Martin was often “hired out” to various plantation owners. As a teenager, he was sent down to South Carolina to work as a turpentine dipper, hard and dangerous labor that was part of the naval stores industry, which began in North Carolina in the early 1700s. The industry was active well into the early decades of the twentieth century, supported largely through the use of convict labor and peonage. In Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon describes the industry and the day to day experience of the men laboring on turpentine farms, providing a picture of what young Martin had to cope with while in the Pee Dee/Lowcountry region.
…men toiled in the turpentine farms under excruciating conditions to supply a booming market for pine tar, pitch, and turpentine used to caulk the seams of wooden sailing ships and waterproof their ropes and riggings.
Workers carved deep V-shaped notches into the trunks of millions of massive slash and longleaf pines towering in the still virgin forests. Small galvanized iron boxes or gutters were attached to the trees to collect the thick, milky pine gum that oozed from the wounds in winter. During spring and summer, as sap began to run, millions of gallons of pine resin oozed into the containers. Working feverishly from before dawn to the end of light, turpentine workers cut fresh notches into every tree once a week, gathered the gum and resin by hand, boiled it into vast quantities of distilled turpentine, and hauled it in hundreds of thousands of barrels out of the deep woods. When trees stopped producing gum and resin, the camp owners harvested them for lumber. As the demand for turpentine products soared, the timber companies relentlessly acquired fresh tracts of forest to drain and armies of men to perform the grueling work. – Slavery by Another Name, 174)
Martin Smith was forced to work in this industry for four long years.
Soon after his return to Virginia, Martin met and married Nansemond County native Jeannette “Jennie” Gordon, daughter of Isaac and Huldah Gordon, according to “slave custom’ in late 1862. The couple never had an official ceremony, according to Jeannette. “He asked my master and mistress for me, and they gave their consent,” she would later state in her pension application.
Martin and Jeannette were the proud parents of nine children, including daughters Emeline and Margaret, and sons John Martin, Charles, Pompey, and George. The family resided in the Western Branch District of Norfolk County, Virginia, in an area annexed by the City of Portsmouth in 1919. Martin generally worked as a laborer on truck farms, and managed to acquire an 1/8-acre of land on which he built a small home. His sons gained employment at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
1st Sgt. Martin Smith passed away on January 4, 1897, from complications of chronic rheumatism. He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, part of the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia. His wife, Jeannette “Jennie” Gordon Smith, died on August 2, 1930, from complications of chronic nephritis. She was also buried in Mount Olive Cemetery by undertaker Richard Rodgers. To date, her gravesite has not been located.
1st Sgt. Martin Smith will be the twentieth African American Civil War veteran to receive a new headstone. See this post for more information on the other nineteen freedom fighters. ♥