Portsmouth, Virginia: Honoring Civil War Veterans of Virginia and North Carolina

Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved

So pleased that Rev. Ashley H. Lewis has a new headstone! Photo: Dennis E. Orton, December 8, 2018.

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

Original gravestone, Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, April 8, 2011. All rights reserved.

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).

Continue reading

Alumna takes care of sacred spaces – Duke Magazine

Thanks, Janine!

Nadia Orton ’98 made a pledge to document her family lineage. It’s turned into a mission to preserve disappearing and discarded history

Nadia Orton ’98 steps carefully around concrete vaults and sunken spots where pine caskets have collapsed inside century- old graves, her knee-high camo boots laced tight.

“I’ve had snakes and stray dogs come out of holes like that,” Orton says, nodding at a grave split in two by a fallen tree branch. Her family insists on the snake boots, a walking stick, a companion.

They tell her, “We know you love history, but you’re not supposed to be part of it yet.”

So the boots are always in the car. So are the thin purple gardening gloves she pulls on to protect her hands from her own impatience to sweep aside pine needles and poison ivy and run a finger over the engravings there, thinned by weather and time.

It is cool out, but still Orton has had to stay home and rest up for five days in order to muster the energy for this tour of Oak Lawn, an unmarked black cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia. The lupus that dogged her at Duke is dragging on her still, after kidney failure and dialysis, and finally a transplant, but it was also her lupus that led her on this quest to preserve black and African-American gravesites. Continue reading

Suffolk, Virginia: Cpl. William Parks, 135th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

This post first appeared on The Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation

Gravestone of Cpl. William Parks, Co. G, 135th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 26, 2018. All rights reserved

Introducing Cpl. William Parks, a newly found African American veteran of the Civil War. Nadia Orton, historian and secretary of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation, first uncovered the gravestone of Cpl. Parks over Decoration Day (Memorial Day) weekend in 2018. Cpl. Parks was born about 1843 in Mobile, Alabama. He enlisted on May 5, 1865, at the Ridgeway Depot in Warren County, North Carolina. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, seven inches tall, with a “yellow” complexion, black eyes and hair. Cpl. Parks mustered in on May 5, 1865, at Washington, D. C. He was promoted to Corporal on June 1, 1865 by special order, and mustered out four months later on October 23rd, at Louisville, Kentucky.

Continue reading

In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the technical end of World War I, was observed by our nation and many countries throughout the world. As with other major historical events, I viewed the day through the lens of a historian and genealogist. It can be quite an interesting enterprise; as a historian, you want to know all of the facts of an event, and as a genealogist, you’re eager to place your ancestors within the context of those events. 

Over the years, our family has located the grave sites of many of our ancestors that served in World War I. We’ve tracked them to historic African American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Richmond and Suffolk in Virginia, Buncombe, Franklin, Henderson, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Knoxville National Cemetery in Tennessee.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

Continue reading