Portsmouth, Virginia: Brothers in the fight for freedom, rediscovered

Calvin White 1st USCC MCCC Portsmouth VA

Enlistment record of Pvt. Calvin White, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry

 

Another long lost veteran has been rediscovered in Mount Olive Cemetery, part of the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, in Portsmouth, Virginia. His name was Calvin White, and he was a member of Company H, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry.

Calvin was born enslaved about 1833, in Gates County, North Carolina. His owner was Sarah F. Hinton (1832-1854), but Calvin’s surname came from his second owner, Watson Timothy White (1824-1919), whom Sarah F. Hinton married on May 28, 1850, Perquimans County, North Carolina. Both of Calvin’s parents were also born into slavery, his mother, Aggy, owned by the Hinton Family, and his father, Isaac Parker, “owned by a man named Parker,” according to Calvin’s later recollection. Both Calvin and his mother Aggy were moved to an area near Edenton, North Carolina, after Sarah F. Hinton’s marriage to Watson Timothy White in 1850.

At the age of thirty, Calvin “left his master,” and traveled up to Norfolk, Virginia, where he enlisted on December 12, 1863, with the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Calvin didn’t make the journey alone. His younger brother, Jerry, left with him, and also enlisted with the 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry. Calvin and Jerry were both assigned to Company H.

Enlistment record of Pvt. Jerry White, Co. H, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry

 

Early freedom seekers in the Edenton area, like abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs, had to make use of North Carolina’s coastal “maritime underground railroad,” to escape slavery.

“Runaways depended on maritime blacks. During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seaman. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferrymen, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready market for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens and other potential collaborators.” (Historical wayside marker, Edenton, NC)

Calvin and Jerry’s sojourn to Norfolk was likely made a little easier by the Union’s capture of Roanoke Island in early 1862.

“It was the key to all the rear defences of Norfolk. It unlocked two sounds (Albemarle and Currituck); eight rivers (North, West, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Little, Chowan, Roanoke and Alligator); four canals (the Albemarle and Chesapeake, Dismal Swamp, Northwest and Suffolk), and two railroads (the Petersburg and Norfolk and Seaboard and Roanoke)…(Time Full of Trial, Patricia C. Click)

In his enlistment record, Calvin was described as thirty years old, five feet, nine inches tall, with black eyes, complexion, and hair.  Little brother Jerry was documented as twenty years old, five feet, six inches tall, with black eyes, complexion and hair. Both men mustered in on December 22, 1863, at Camp Hamilton, where the 1st United States Colored Cavalry was originally organized.

 

Camp Hamilton, Hampton, Virginia. Library of Congress

 

In his pension record, Calvin described his military service as best as he could remember it. He noted that the regiment was involved in a small skirmish “on the turnpike near Petersburg,” though no one in his company was injured. He remembered traveling to Bermuda Hundred, arriving after the battle was over, and being before Petersburg, Virginia, though he didn’t join the fight. Later, he remembered moving on to Williamsburg, Virginia, and being in Richmond after April 3, 1865, when the state capitol fell to Union forces. In the city for only a few days, his company was ordered from Richmond to Geddes (Gettys) Station (Portsmouth, Virginia), and then on to Brazos Santiago, Texas.

It was during the trip to Brazos Santiago, Texas, that Calvin remembered the beginning of what would become permanent issues with his eyesight. Whether from smoke, dust, or exposure, he explained it as “just a loss of sight.” In his enlistment record, he was recorded as being absent from duty on August 3, 1865 as a result, with an eventual transfer to the Corps D’Afrique General Hospital at New Orleans, Louisiana soon after. On December 22, 1865, he was discharged from duty on a surgeon’s certificate of disability. He soon returned to Tidewater, Virginia.

Having no major medical issues, Calvin’s brother Jerry remained in Texas with the regiment when Calvin was discharged. Calvin lived with Jerry’s family in Hampton, Virginia until early 1867.

After Jerry’s return to Hampton Roads, Calvin relocated from Hampton to Portsmouth, and met Hannah Barnes, who became his common law wife.  Hannah was also from North Carolina, and by 1870, the couple were documented in the Western Branch district of (former) Norfolk County, Virginia. Two daughters were born to them, Martha in 1872, and Rachel Ann in 1874. During this period, Calvin worked as a general laborer, eventually becoming an oysterman, like many of my paternal ancestors.

 

Pvt. Calvin White and Hannah Barnes, 1880 Census, West Branch, Norfolk County, Virginia

 

Over in Hampton, Jerry officially married Rebecca (surname unknown). The couple had seven children, daughters Louisa and Rachel, and sons Robert (or Richard), Edward, Jerry, Jr., William, and….Calvin. Jerry White, Sr., worked mostly as a general laborer, in lumberyards in and around Hampton, and later as a gardener.

Pvt. Calvin White passed away on December 31, 1921. His wife, Hannah, and little brother, Pvt. Jerry White, preceded him in death. Hannah died sometime after 1900, and Jerry, on April 13, 1910. Calvin was laid to rest in Portsmouth’s Mount Olive Cemetery by Richard Rodgers, a son of a Civil War veteran, and noted African American undertaker for Portsmouth’s black community.

To date, a headstone for Pvt. Calvin White has not been found. It’s possible that he never had one. It is also possible that he did, and his gravestone, like so many others in the cemetery complex, is simply buried out of sight by a foot or more of soil, a victim of repeated bouts of flooding and soil disturbance over the years. Calvin’s wife Hannah may also be buried in Mount Olive, but like her husband, without an identifiable gravestone.

Of equal interest is the question of Pvt. Jerry White’s last resting place. He is not documented buried in Hampton National Cemetery, nor any other Hampton cemetery to date. Could he be buried with his older brother Calvin in Portsmouth? Or does he rest, undocumented, in one of Hampton’s historic African American cemeteries? In stark contrast, a quick Google search identified the burials of Sarah F. Hinton White and Watson Timothy White, Calvin and Jerry’s former slave owners. They rest in Edenton’s well-kept Beaver Hill Cemetery. As for the graves of Pvt. Calvin White, Hannah Barnes White, and Pvt. Jerry White, the search continues. ♥

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