In Their Own Words: Pvt. Samuel Dyes, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, Portsmouth, Virginia

Copyright 2010 Nadia K. Orton
Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010. Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)

Pvt. Samuel Dyes, of Company G, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1835 on St. Julian’s Creek, Norfolk County, Virginia, the son of James and Rosetta Dyes.1 He enlisted at the age of twenty-eight, on December 9, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and mustered in a few weeks later at Norfolk, on December 28, 1863. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, seven and a half inches tall, with a “dark” complexion, eyes and hair. As Samuel enlisted on December 9th, 1863, he was not a part of General Edward Wild’s famed expedition to North Carolina, but did engage in the Battle of New Market Heights (Deep Bottom), September 29, 1864.

Samuel was never wounded, but suffered one bout of illness in August of 1865, after the men of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry had been transferred down to Brazos Santiago, Texas. He was discharged with the surviving members of his regiment on October 28, 1866, and returned to Portsmouth, Virginia soon thereafter. Samuel first filed for his (approved) military pension in 1892.


Age about 66, occupation, laboring, residence Brighton, Portsmouth, Norfolk Co., Va. I have been drawing a pension under the act of June 27, 1890, having served as a private G, 36 U. S. C. V. I.

I was born at Juliens Creek, Norfolk Co. Va., but can’t give the year. I was born a slave to Martin J. Ballentine. My father’s name was James Dyes and he was a slave to Nat Dyes and then fell to his young mistress Mary Ann Pope, Norfolk Co. Va. My mother was Rosetta Dyes and she was a slave to Ned Owens of Juliens Creek,. My full and correct name is Samuel Dyes enlisted and served under the latter name as I got it from my father and have not been known under any other name since. 2

I was about 28 years of age at enlistment at Portsmouth, Va. (Oak Grove) Was stripped given a good physical examination. Enlisted Dec 9 1863 and was sworn in at Norfolk Va. I can’t tell who the recruiting officer was I was too young green to know.

I was discharged at Brazos Santiago, Texas, Oct. 28 1866 and discharged finally at Hampton or Fort Monroe, Va., after we came up from Texas I came back to Portsmouth and have lived in that vicinity ever since.

I never rendered any other service, military of naval, Union or Confederate.

I never was detached from my company.

I was in the Deep Bottom fight, 29 Sept. 1864. Two men were killed out of my company Miles Creekman & another whose name I can’t recall. Wasn’t in any other battle.3

I tented with Wilson Stogley and John Binford. I have been drawing a pension about four years. Was paid off back pay & bounty $300 at discharge. My witnesses were Moses Barrington (Co. I) and Jas Wilkins (Co. B). I never gave either anything and didn’t testify for either.4

I was last examined by a Board of U. S. Gov’t Surgeons previous to my claim being allowed. I never filed a claim under the general law. Mr. Rutter wrote up my pension papers and I gave him 50 (cents) each time. N. W. Wells, Washin. D. C. was my regular attorney and he got $10 at the other end. I hold my pension papers myself and never borrowed money. Mr. Reed, Portsmouth, executed last pension voucher on Mar. 4, 1902. He never executed it before the 4th. I pay him 50 (cents).

Have been married twice. My first wife, Julia Rhodes, died at (Brighton) Portsmouth, Va. 11 Nov. 1897. I then married Violet Hodges at Portsmouth, Va., August 11, 1898. She had never been married before. Have two children under 16: James E., born May 2, 1890, and Herbert A., born Feb. 4, 1894. 5

Map of (former) Nofolk County, Virginia, ca. 1887. The Ballentine Tract along St. Julian’s Creek, where Samuel Dyes was held in bondage, is noted in red. Norfolk Public Library

Pvt. Samuel Dyes passed away on July 25, 1925, at his residence on Summit Avenue, Portsmouth, Virginia. The stated cause of death was parenchymatous nephritis. He was survived by his widow, Violet Ann Hodges Dyes, and daughter Martha L. Dyes. Samuel was buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879) on July 28, 1925. The Fisher Funeral Home, under the direction of John T. Fisher, handled the arrangements. 6

Mr. Samuel Dyes, an old resident of Portsmouth, died at his home, 722 Summit Ave., Saturday, July 25, at the age of ninety years. Mr. Dyes is mourned by a widow, two daughters, and a grandson. Funeral was held from the First Baptist Church, Brighton; the interment, Mount Olive cemetery.”

Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 8, 19257

Although I’ve studied Samuel Dyes for many years, I’ve only recently received his military pension file from the National Archives, Washington, D. C. It contained testimony from Violet Hodges Dyes, his lawful widow, which indicated she did not have the funds required to properly bury Samuel after his death in 1925. This fact seemed to explain Samuel’s original headstone, a roughly stamped concrete cast block, with no indication of his military service.

I’ll never forget the day I found Samuel’s grave in 2011. We (my family) were searching Mt. Calvary again, looking for more of our ancestors’ graves. My feet deserve the credit, I suppose, as I literally stepped all over his headstone. At first glance, It looked more like a rock, and less a precious testament to someone’s life. Barely visible, it was almost completely buried in the earth, having sunken over decades, the result of rampant flooding in the cemetery. Although the inscription was difficult to read, I figured it out, as Samuel’s gravestone was identical to my great-great-grandfather Arthur L. Orton’s gravestone in neighboring Fishers Hill Cemetery (est. 1917). Like Samuel, Arthur was also a veteran (Navy), but his gravestone doesn’t note his service. Samuel and Arthur had never previously been identified as veterans, so we began planting flags at their gravesites every Memorial Day, beginning in 2012.

Samuel Dyes grave as it appeared on May 23, 2015. We planted the flag during Memorial Day Weekend. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Arthur L. Orton, Sr.’s grave, as it appeared in 2008. Fishers Hill Cemetery, Portsmouth. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Perhaps this familiarity is why I looked to improve Samuel’s grave, and was able to replace his gravestone in 2017. It was supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and our family only had to pay the fifty-dollar installation cost. I wanted his life to be recognized, as someone who’d escaped slavery, with all inherent dangers, to fight for the freedom and equality of all African Americans, including those who were born free from slavery,

Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton Portsmouth VA
New headstone, installed July 26, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, July 27, 2017. Mt. Calvary Cemetery. All rights reserved.

Through study, I found that most of Samuel’s children, by his first wife, Julia, were also buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. None were previously documented, and their graves are currently unmarked. As relayed in Samuel’s testimony, his first wife Julia Rhodes Dyes, passed on in 1897, and may be buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.8 According to their death certificates, sons Herbert Dyes (1894-1913), and James E. Dyes (1890-1914) were buried January 13, 1913, and March 12, 1914, respectively.9 Daughter Martha L. Dyes passed away on November 21, 1961, Portsmouth, and was interred in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery on November 23, 1961. Her grave is currently unmarked.10


  1. Norfolk County was consolidated with the City of South Norfolk, and named the independent City of Chesapeake, Virginia, in 1963. See “History of Chesapeake,” for more information.
  2. According to vital records, in 1850, Martin Joyce Ballentine (ca. 1806-1891), was a farmer and head of a household of six individuals, in possession of $2,000 worth of real estate. Eight enslaved persons, five men, and three women, were attributed to his estate. In 1860, Ballentine was documented in Portsmouth, Virginia, in possession of $2, 680 in real estate, and a personal estate worth $4, 695. Fifteen enslaved men and women, and three slave houses, were counted on his estate on St. Julien’s Creek. Sources: “U. S. Census 1850,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com: accessed 18 December 2019), citing “Year: 1850; Census Place: Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia; Roll: M432_964; Page: 264B; Image: 534.”; “U. S. Census – Slave Schedules,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/: accessed 18 December 2019); Portsmouth, Norfolk County, Virginia; citing “The National Archive in Washington DC; Washington, DC; NARA Microform Publication: M653; Title: Eighth Census Of The United States, 1860; Record Group: Records of District Courts of the United States; Record Group Number: 21.”; “U. S. Census 1860,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/: accessed 18 December 2019); Portsmouth, Norfolk County, Virginia, p. 34; citing “Year: 1860; Census Place: Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia; Roll: M653_1366; Page: 595; Family History Library Film: 805366”; “U. S. Census – Slave Schedules,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 18 December 2019); Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia), citing “United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1860. M653, 1,438 rolls.
  3. Here, Pvt. Dyes is referring to the Battle of New Market Heights, where fourteen African American men would earn the Medal of Honor for their bravery and conduct. “Miles Creekman” enlisted as “Miles Crickman,” (alias Miles Quickmore) who was forty-one years old at the time of his enlistment on December 24, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia. A native of (former) Norfolk County, Virginia, Miles was killed in action on September 29, 1864.
  4. Pvt. James Wilkins, of Norfolk County, Virginia, enlisted at the age of forty-one, on November 32, 1863, Portsmouth, Virginia. He mustered out on October 28, 1866, and is buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Per his enlistment record, Pvt. Moses Barrington, of Pasquotank County, North Carolina, enlisted at the age of twenty-six, on November 30, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia. In addition to the Battle of New Market Heights, Pvt. Barrington also engaged in the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Virginia. He mustered out on October 28, 1866, and died at his residence on Pine Street, Portsmouth, in 1906.
  5. Samuel Dyes (Pvt., Co. G, 36th U. S. Colored Cavalry, Civil War), pension no. 955.855, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files’ Record Group 15; Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; National Archives, Washington, D. C.
  6. “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 December 2019), certificate image, Samuel Dyes, 25 July March 1925, no. 16659, citing “Virginia, Deaths, 1912–2014. Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia.”
  7. The stated location of Samuel Dyes’ interment, Mount Olive Cemetery, is in error. Samuel Dyes’ grave site is located in Mount Calvary Cemetery, adjacent to Mount Olive, part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879)
  8. Samuel Dyes Civil War pension no. VA 955,855, RG 15, NA-Washington.
  9. “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 December 2019), certificate images, Herbert A. Dyes, 18 January 1913, and James E. Dyes, 9 March 1914; citing “Virginia, Deaths, 1912–2014. Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia.”
  10. “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 December 2019), certificate image, Martha L. Dyes, 21 November 1961, no. 28199; citing “Virginia, Deaths, 1912–2014. Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia.”

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