In honor of Juneteenth, we’re sharing the freedom story of newly found African American Civil War veteran, Whitford Staton, of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Mr. Staton has previously never been identified in any written history of Suffolk/Nansemond County, Virginia.
Whitford Staton was born on September 2, 1844, in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. He was the son of Jordan and Harriett Staton. Whitford and his paretns were enslaved on the prosperous plantation known as “Cotton Valley,” the residence of planter Baker Staton (1804-1866), located on the southside of the Tar River, near Tarboro.
I was initially excited to discover Whitford was from Edgecombe. After years of personal family research, I thought I knew a little about the region. The county, established in 1741, was the home of (paternal) great-grandmother Mary Anna Barnes Young. Born in 1893, she hailed from the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount. Her mother, and my great-great-grandmother, Julia, was a Battle, descended from enslaved ancestors from the Battle Family plantations. In 2018, I applied for and replaced the damaged gravestone of Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis (1st U. S. Colored Cavalry), who rests in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (1879), located in Portsmouth, Virginia. Sgt. Lewis was born enslaved on the Foxhall Plantation in Edgecombe. After the Civil War, he was ordained a minister, and served as pastor of First Baptist Church Mahan, Suffolk, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, Portsmouth, Virginia. Yet Whitford’s family surname, Staton, was an unfamiliar one, and I realized I needed to dig a bit deeper to fully realize Whitford beyond a name on a document.
The Slave Community
To learn more about Whitford’s parents, Jordan and Harriett, I reviewed the estate records of the Staton Family. I found little on Harriett, but uncovered a few promising leads on Jordan Staton. Based on census estimates, Jordan was born about 1808, in either Edgecombe or neighboring Halifax County, North Carolina. A young, African American child named Jordan was named in the estate of Ezekiel Staton (ca. 1745-1815), willed to Redding Staton, one of Ezekiel’s sons. Over forty enslaved men, women, and children (and future children of the enslaved women), were named and divided amongst the heirs of Ezekiel Staton in 1815, Edgecombe County, North Carolina.
|Africa*||Mary Staton||Mary (wife of Ezekiel Staton. Africa was later to be given to Bythel Staton after Mary’s decease.)|
|Sarah*||Mary Staton||Sarah was to be given to son Roderick Staton after Mary’s decease.|
|Dinah*||Mary Staton||Dinah was to be given to Ezekiel’s daughters Nancy and Bythel after Mary’s decease.|
|Esther||Polly and John Howell||Polly and John Howell (grandchildren; of Gracy Howell, daughter of Ezekiel Staton, Sr.)|
|Christopher||Polly and John Howell||Christopher (son of Esther)|
|Sarah||Polly and John Howell||Sarah (daughter of Esther)|
|Hasty||Polly and John Howell||Hasty (daughter of Esther)|
|Davy||Polly and John Howell||*Davy, to be sold; proceeds divided between grandchildren Polly and John Howell, children of Gracy Howell|
|Daniel||William Staton||William (son of Ezekiel Staton)|
|Bob||James Staton||James (son of Ezekiel Staton)|
|Grace||Nancy Whitley||Nancy (daughter of Ezekiel Staton)|
|Bob||Nancy Whitley||Bob (boy)|
|Frank||Nancy Whitley||Frank (boy)|
|Ana||Anna Staton||Ann (daughter of Ezekiel Staton)|
|Littleton||Anna Staton||Littleton (boy)|
|Bett||Sabry Hopkins||Sabry (daughter of Ezekiel Staton)|
|Dick||Sabry Hopkins||Dick (boy)|
|Randall||Sabry Hopkins||Randall (boy)|
|Violet||Bythel Jones||Bythel (daughter of ezekiel Staton)|
|Mary||Bythel Jones||Mary (girl)|
|Thomas||Bythel Jones||Thomas (boy)|
|Anza||Bythel Jones||Anza (girl)|
|Kitty||Bythel Jones||Kitty (girl)|
|Fran*||Redding Staton||*Fran (Wife of Harry)|
|Harry*||Redding Staton||*Harry (husband of Fran)|
|Jordan*||Redding Staton||Jordan (boy)|
|Simon||Redding Staton||Simon (boy)|
|Bunna||Ricky (Roderick) Staton||Bunna (girl)|
|Annaka||Ricky (Roderick) Staton||Annaka (girl)|
|Lucy||Ricky (Roderick) Staton||Lucy (girl)|
|Corina||Ricky (Roderick) Staton||Corina (girl)|
|Jack||Ricky (Roderick) Staton|
|Peter||Ricky (Roderick) Staton||Peter (boy)|
|Mary (girl, daugher of Harry and Fran)|
To gain insight into Whitford’s life at Cotton Valley, I thought about the realities of the lives of the enslaved on a cotton plantation. In the 1850s, Edgecombe County set a singular example as a successful center of cotton production in North Carolina. Planters like Baker Staton won praise for their soil-cultivation techniques, including the use of marl for fertilizer. Staton became quite wealthy during this period, and sat on several influential boards, including the Bank of North Carolina (Tarboro branch), and the “Cotton and Its Culture” committee of the Edgecombe Agricutural Society. All of this wealth was due directly to the back-breaking, daily labor of the enslaved population of Cotton Valley. Per the 1850 Census, sixty-six enslaved men, women, and children were attributed to Staton’s estate. By 1860, that number had increased to ninety, with sixteen slave cabins documented on the grounds of Cotton Valley.
After the seeds were planted in hills, constant attention was required to “chop” weeds out of the growing plants with a hoe. Because weeds were relentless without pesticides and sapped the vigor of the cotton plant, slaves spent many hours in hot, humid weather “chopping cotton.” Then from late summer to fall, beginning in August and continuing into November, slaves picked cotton by hand, stooping down over each plant. As many as six pickings routinely took place because the cotton bolls did not open all at once, but gradually. Each picking required the back-breaking labor of plucking cotton out of the boll and stuffing it in a sack – usually until well over 100 pounds was collected.Jeffrey D. Crow
An event held in Edgecombe when Whitford was only seven years old illustrates just one of the likely reasons for his eventual escape to freedom. To celebrate their economic success, several of the county’s largest planters held a contest in 1851, to determine which planter’s slaves could pick the most cotton in a day. The leading newspapers of Edgecombe and Wake counties eagerly covered the story. The enslaved chosen for the contest included men, women, and children, some as young as twelve and fourteen years old. The contests lasted from 5:30am-6:30pm, with only one thirty-minute break for sustenance. The contest between Baker Staton and John Sessums Dancy (1821-1888), of White Acre Plantation, was held twice, on October 4th and October 7th.1
|Herbert||Richard Hines||627||October 4, 1851|
|Isaac||Richard Hines||598||October 4, 1851|
|Nicey||14||Richard Hines||475||October 4, 1851|
|Mima||Richard Hines||421||October 4, 1851|
|Little Jim||Richard Hines||430||October 4, 1851|
|Fanny||Richard Hines||419||October 4, 1851|
|Hoyt||Baker Staton||429||October 4, 1851|
|Jo||Baker Staton||451||October 4, 1851|
|George||John S. Dancy||401||October 4, 1851|
|Tacitus||John S. Dancy||423||October 4, 1851|
|Hoyt||Baker Staton||320||October 7, 1851|
|Jo||Baker Staton||361||October 7, 1851|
|George||John S. Dancy||377||October 7, 1851|
|Tacitus||John S. Dancy||362||October 7, 1851|
Several other planters eagerly entered the contest, with similar results. It was a grand affair for the slaveowners of Edgecombe. After the contest, with the tallies rendered, the story concluded in triumph: “Hurrah for Edgecombe!”
Whitford’s journey to freedom
Whitford escaped the cotton fields of Edgecombe County in late summer 1863, and enlisted with the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry on September 2nd, at New Bern (Craven County) North Carolina. He enlisted under the surname “Staton,” (“Staden’”per the record), taking his name from Baker Staton, as his father, Jordan, had done. Whitford was assigned to Company K, and mustered in on October 28, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia. At the time of his enlistment, Whitford was described as a farmer, a common occupation given to formerly enslaved recruits, five foot, eight inches tall, with a dark complexion.
As a member of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, Whitford traveled north from Portsmouth with the Army of the James, taking part in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (Siege of Petersburg), 1864-1865. According to later testimony, Whitford fought in the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, out of which fourteen African American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Whitford was present during the Fall of Richmond, on April 3, 1865. The formerly enslaved young man, who once toiled daily in the cotton fields of Edgecombe County, was among the first African American soldiers to liberate the former capital of the Confederacy. After Richmond, Whitford and his fellow comrades of the 36th traveled south to City Point, and Portsmouth, Virginia, before the long voyage to Brazos Santiago, Texas. Whitford mustered out of service there on September 2, 1866, and soon returned to Edgecombe County by the winter of 1866.
After the war
Whitford was annotated in the 1870 Census as a twenty-seven year old resident of Deep Creek Township, near Tarboro. His father, Jordan, lived several homes away. I didn’t find Whitford listed in Edgecombe County records after 1870, but a Whitford Staton, and wife, Annie, were documented in the Toisnot district of Wilson County, North Carolina in 1880.
By Whitford’s own admission, he led a rather itinerant existence between 1880 and 1900. While his family remained in Tarboro, North Carolina, Whitford “moved around alot,” through various areas of Eastern North Carolina, prior to settling in Suffolk, Virginia by the mid- 1890s. Known colloquially as “Whit,” he soon became acquainted with several other African American Civil War veterans in the Town of Suffolk, and surrounding Nansemond County, Virginia, including Redmond Parker of Hertford County, North Carolina, and eventually joined B. F. Butler Post, No. 49, Grand Army of the Republic, of Suffolk, Virginia.
On February 10, 1900, Whitford married widow Martha Cherry, who had several children from a previous marriage. Martha apparently deserted Whitford a few years later. Whitford subsequently married Miss Julia Ann Boyd in 1908. By 1910, Whitford was a resident of Chuckatuck, Nansemond County, where he lived alone as a common laborer. Whitford died on the morning of August 9th, 1923, and was buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery by undertaker J. H. Reid. For his occupation, his death certificate states “old soldier.”
Today, one can easily find the grave of Whitford’s former enslaver, Baker Staton. He rests with other members of the family in a well-tended plot on a hillside at The Links at Cotton Valley, a golf club that sits on the former site of Cotton Valley plantation. The plantation home itself, regarded as a beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture, still stands. Whitford, however, rests in a grave that is currently unmarked in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Suffolk, Virginia.
During each visit to Oak Lawn, I continue to search the grounds for signs of Whitford’s grave. One day, I’ll find it, and mark his grave like other African American Civil War veterans I’ve rediscovered throughout Tidewater, Virginia. The freedom and equality that they fought for is a cause not yet won, and we must go forward in preserving their memory, and the cemeteries in which they rest, with integrity. Whitford Staton may have died alone, but his name, and his struggle for freedom, will never be forgotten.