Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved
In the summer of 2007, I began a family history project to document all interments in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Established in 1879, it is the oldest, extant African American cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia. It’s a historic site near and dear to our family’s heart, having over forty-eight ancestors buried there, although most are without visible gravestones.
Inspired by finding (and not finding), the burial sites of Civil War ancestors in our own family, I looked to the conditions of the graves of the United States Colored Troops in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Many of their gravestones were knocked over, buried, dirty, and broken, some with sizable portions sheared off by lawn mowers or other landscaping tools. I could make out the names after a little work, but what would the inscriptions look like in five years? Ten? We decided to do what was within our means to help preserve the graves of these brave souls, adding to similar efforts by descendants and volunteers over the years.
Some of the Civil War veterans qualified for replacement headstones from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, our family was able to assist two descendant families secure new headstones for their veteran ancestors. In addition, we replaced the headstones of eight other Civil War veterans between 2016 and 2017.
This post concerns the remaining seven replacement headstones installed in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in December, 2018. They were all approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs between January and June of 2017. Our family didn’t know about local efforts to secure funding for the cemeteries, so we personally paid for the installation of the headstones. In retrospect, I’d say it was $850 well spent.
We have three more headstone installations to go, in Portsmouth’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. I hope the stones remain legible for future generations, so these brave men, and their sacrifice and struggle for freedom and equality, will never be forgotten.
Cpl. George Baysmore
Company H, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry
Corporal George Baysmore of the 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1835 in Bertie County, North Carolina. He enlisted on July 13, 1863, at Plymouth (Washington County), North Carolina and mustered in January 25, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia. He mustered out on January 17, 1866, at Hicks General Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, an early discharge due to disability from gunshot wounds received at the Battle of New Market Heights/Chaffin’s Farm, September 29, 1864.
Cpl. Baysmore passed away on November 19, 1898, Portsmouth, Virginia. He was interred in Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex).
Pvt. Arthur Beasley
Company I, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry
Private Arthur Beasley was born about 1840, in Hertford County, North Carolina. He was the son of Jordan Downey. Arthur escaped slavery, and enlisted on August 2, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as twenty-four years old, five feet, nine inches tall, with “dark complexion, eyes, and hair.” He mustered in September 7, 1864, at Newport News, Virginia, and mustered out on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
Pvt. Beasley married Annie Ellen Winburn (Winborne), according to “slave custom,” by consent of their owners, on June 19, 1862, in Hertford County, North Carolina. Between 1870 and 1895, Arthur worked as a general laborer and farmer. Two daughters were born to Arthur and Annie, Amelia (b. ca. 1875), and Henrietta (ca. 1876-1915). Arthur passed away on May 8, 1896, Portsmouth, Virginia, and was interred in Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex).
After Arthur’s death, Annie moved to New York City, where she lived with extended family. She passed away on November 15, 1930, and was interred in Lawson Cemetery, Putnam County, New York.
Cpl. John Cross
Company F, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry
Cpl. John Cross, of the 10th United States Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1833 in Gates County, North Carolina, owned by the Langston Family. He escaped in 1863, and enlisted on the fourth of December of that year at Craney Island, Virginia. He mustered in at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 17, 1863. He was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, and was discharged from service on May 7, 1866, at Galveston, Texas.
John Cross was married to Eliza Robbins, a free person of color also from Gates County, North Carolina, shortly after the war. The ceremony was performed by Rev. William Brock Wellons of the Suffolk Christian Church. Cpl. John Cross passed away on May 29, 1894, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). His wife, Eliza Robbins Cross, passed on July 2, 1913. She was also interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, presumably near her husband. Her gravestone has not been located.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis
Company B, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, of the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, was born enslaved in 1842 near Tarboro, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, on the Foxhall Estate. He enlisted on December 3, 1863, at Newport News, Virginia, and mustered in at Camp Hamilton on December 22, 1863. He was promoted to Corporal on April 25, 1864, and promoted to Sergeant on November 26, 1865. He was discharged from service on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
After the war, Sgt. Lewis returned to Tidewater, Virginia, and married Josephine Baker, a free person of color from Smithfield, Virginia, on August 21, 1867, Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John W. Godwin, the first pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (est. 1865), Portsmouth.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis was also an ordained minister. He served as pastor for First Baptist Church Mahan (est. 1866), in Suffolk, Virginia, from 1880-1883, and was the second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (following Rev. John W. Godwin), from 1885 to 1890, the year of his death. According to information culled from his death certificate and an article from the Baltimore Sun, Rev. Lewis died from complications of apoplexy, or, a cerebral hemorrhage, on the morning of November 29, 1890. His wife Josephine, whose name also appears on the family monument, preceded him in death, passing on August 6, 1890. ♠
Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris
Company A, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry
Landsman, USS Allegheny, USS North Carolina, USS Cyane, USS Independence
Samuel Morris’ story is an interesting one. He was born in 1839, in Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia. His parents were Demus and Milly Morris. The family was owned by Dr. Robert Boykins, and for a time, Samuel was known as “Samuel Boykins.”
Samuel escaped slavery, and enlisted, as Samuel Morris, with the Union Army, on January 29, 1864, at Baltimore, Maryland. He was assigned to the 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Three months later, he was transferred to the Navy, in Brooklyn, New York. In his pension file, Samuel noted that “we were carried on a ship, a transport, from Brooklyn to Aspinwall, took the cars from there to Panama, went aboard the USS Cyane from Panama, about 150 or 200 of us, and then went to Mares Island, San Francisco, Cal.”
A sloop of war built in 1837, the USS Cyane was the oldest of six vessels that comprised the Pacific Squadron during the Civil War, assembled for the support and protection of American interests in the region. Aspinwall, now known as Colon, was the port city established on the northern coast of the Isthmus of Panama, from which the Panama Rail Road (completed in 1855) carried gold prospectors, soldiers, and workers across the Isthmus down to Panama City.
As a “contraband” in the Union Navy, Samuel Morris likely experienced the racial resentment and harassment suffered by many African American enlisted sailors, the “intense racial hatred,” as described by Joseph P. Reidy. Upon reaching Mare Island Navy Yard (Vallejo, Cal.), Samuel Morris fell ill for a time, and after his recovery, began working in the navy yard until his discharge on Mare Island, California, in 1866.
Samuel Morris returned to Portsmouth immediately after his discharge from service, and married Miss Lucinda Bartee in 1867. He worked as a longshoreman until his death on January 15, 1902. His wife, Lucinda, passed away in 1927, and is thought to be buried near her husband in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Her gravesite has not yet been located.
Pvt. Thomas Reddick
Company K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry
Pvt. Thomas Reddick was born enslaved, about 1838, in Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia. He was the son of Rhody Reddick. Thomas escaped slavery and enlisted on December 14, 1863, at Norfolk, Virginia. In his enlistment record, he was described as twenty-five years old, with “black eyes and hair.” He mustered in on December 22, 1863, at Camp Hamilton, Hampton, Virginia. He mustered out on February 4, 1866, with the surviving members of his regiment, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
Thomas was married to Martha Wilson, a native of Edenton, North Carolina, in the Newtown District of (former) Norfolk County in 1862. Thomas Reddick passed away on December 9, 1901, and was interred in Mt. Olive Cemetery. His wife, Martha, died in 1906. Her grave has not been located.
1st Sgt. Martin Smith
Company D, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry
1st Sgt. Martin Smith was 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,” a common statement by formerly enslaved enlistees. 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.