Virginia: Preserving African American Civil War History in Tidewater, Virginia

Due to the impending landfall of Hurricane Florence, we’re not sure how long we’ll have access to the internet (or power for that matter), and when those services will be restored. However, we’re happy to report that two of the thirteen remaining replacement headstones for local African American Civil War veterans have finally been installed. Most of the headstones were delivered between July and September of 2017, with the installations delayed due to extended periods of rain in the Mid-Atlantic region, and other factors.

 

Pvt. Richard Reddick (ca. 1847-1896*)
Company F, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry
Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879)

 

Original gravestone of Pvt. Richard Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 11, 2010.

Replacement gravestone, installed August, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 1, 2018

 

Pvt. Richard Reddick (sometimes spelled “Riddick”), was born enslaved in Perquimans County, North Carolina (some documents note Camden County). He escaped slavery and enlisted in the Union Army on February 22, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia. He mustered out on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas. According to military records, Pvt. Reddick passed away on July 10, 1896, though Portsmouth City death records note his date of death as July 10, 1895. His wife, Mary, passed away in 1940, and may be buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery along with several of their children.

 


Pvt. Austin Smallwood (ca. 1845-1894)
Company I, 14th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery
Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879)

 

Austin Smallwood USCT Copyright Nadia K. Orton

Original gravestone of Pvt. Austin Smallwood. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 11 , 2010

Austin Smallwood replacement gravestone Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Replacement gravestone, installed August, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 1, 2018

 

Pvt. Austin Smallwood was born enslaved about 1845 in Bertie County, North Carolina. In 1863, Austin’s owners vowed to shoot and kill any of their slaves that “ran away to the Yankees.” Cognizant of the deadly threat, Austin remained on the plantation to look after his mother, Nancy, and three younger brothers. However, in early 1865, he escaped, and made his way to New Bern, North Carolina, where he enlisted in the Union Army on February 23rd. After his discharge in December, 1865 at Fort Macon, North Carolina, Austin moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, where he soon became an influential member of his community, a devoted husband, and a loving father of four. Although he’d made Portsmouth his new home, Austin never forgot his roots, and kept in close contact with his family in North Carolina. Pvt. Austin Smallwood passed away in 1894 at his home on Columbia St., Portsmouth, from complications of “phthisis pulmonalis,” a term once used to describe the debilitating effects of tuberculosis. His wife, Martha Brown Smallwood, a Franklin, Virginia native, passed away in 1932, and is most likely buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth.♥

 

Portsmouth, Virginia: Disappointments and Discoveries

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The recently (re)discovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

On March 22, 2018, we visited Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (est. 1912), in Portsmouth, Virginia. Our family has long ties to the sacred ground, with ancestors from North Carolina and various areas of Tidewater, Virginia, being buried there for decades.

So, it was no surprise that, after a week of snow and rainstorms, we encountered major flooding in the cemetery. It happens often, as the grounds are low-lying with exceedingly poor drainage. But this flooding was horrible, perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen. It was present in the front of the cemetery…

Lincoln Memorial Flooding 2018 Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Waterlogged graves of Dr. William E. Reid and wife Cornelia, and Dr. Frank G. Elliott and wife Laura Carr Elliott. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

the center of the cemetery…

Flood Graves Lincoln Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Submerged graves of Korean War veteran Leonard Walker, and Vietnam War veteran William McKentry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

and the rear…

Flooding in a rear section of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

No section of the historic burial ground was spared, and hundreds of grave markers were barely visible beneath the rippling pools of water, mud, and random trash blown in from the roadway. I tried to muster my game face, and family members made a comment that was both practical and dispiriting. “I hope your boots don’t start leaking!” Sigh. This visit was supposed to be a positive one. We were there to mark the gravesite of Pvt. Albert Jones, a member of the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. He died in a terrible house fire in 1940 at the age of one hundred and two, and for over seventy-eight years, had rested in an unmarked grave. In February, we submitted a request for a new headstone for Pvt. Jones, which was recently approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs and delivered to a local monument company for installation. It seemed a simple task: go to the cemetery, and flag his gravesite for the monument company. But the flood waters made the simple act of marking Albert’s grave practically impossible.

“…you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer.”

Not long ago, I discovered Albert’s slave narrative, recorded in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Through it, I had the opportunity to learn details of his life not found in any other source. It’s simply stunning, reading first person testimony, feeling the inherent power of the words. Albert described being born enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, site of the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831. Though he never shared his name, Albert stated that his owner was relatively decent. However, if the owner found any books, paper, or other reading or writing materials in the hands of the enslaved, they would be beaten or otherwise severely punished.

Albert had remained on the plantation until the age of twenty-one, when he’d escaped with his brother, and enlisted in the Union Army on December 3, 1864, at Newport News, Virginia. In the narrative, he described the living conditions in the Federal camps, and the roles of African American women there who’d joined their husbands in their flight to freedom.

In one battle, Albert had been shot through his right hand. At the time, Albert stated that he’d simply wrapped it with a bandage and continued to fight, but the wound would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. After showing her his injury, the WPA interviewer noted “it was half closed…this was as far as he could open his hand.”

Learning these fascinating tidbits about his life, coupled with the tragic way that he died, made me determined to mark Albert’s grave. He’d begun to feel like a long-lost member of our family. So as we would with any other family member, we tried to find his grave despite the flooding. But good intentions aside, there was no way it was going to happen that day…the whole area was underwater, a foot deep in some sections. Albert would have to wait, again.

Flooding in Albert’s section. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Disappointed, I began to make my way back to the car, but was soon distracted by another grave. It was a headstone of government-issue, and judging by its weathered appearance, a very old one. Mindful of the sodden ground and flood waters, I leaned down as close as I dared, and made out a very faint inscription. “____ Williams, Co. __, __ U. S. C. I.” It certainly wasn’t Albert, so who was this? Had I found another United States Colored Troop?

I trudged back to the car a little faster, and retrieved a pair of gloves, an old towel, and our trusty brush/ice-scraper for an impromptu cleaning (brush for the stone, ice-scraper for the mud at the base). After a few minutes, the inscription was clear enough to read: “Sergt. Geo. Williams/Co. F/36 U. S. C. I.” Indeed, I had discovered another freedom fighter.

Sgt. George Williams 36th USCI Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Clearing the gravestone of Sgt. George Williams, 36th Regiment, U. S.Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The rediscovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

Returning home, I looked up Sgt. Williams’ service record. He was born about 1843 in Suffolk, Virginia, and described as five feet, five inches tall, with “black eyes, complexion, and hair,” occupation farmer.  He’d enlisted on August 13, 1863, in Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in at Portsmouth on October 28th. While his service record doesn’t indicate his participation in any battles, it does note his intermittent assignments with the Quartermaster Department. He was appointed Corporal on September 9, 1863, and Sergeant on July 24, 1866. He mustered out on August 13, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, after a term of three years.

Excited, I continued to dig. After the war, George married Jennie Knight, daughter of Paul and Jennie Knight. According to later

Enlistment record of Sgt. George Williams, 36th U. S.Colored Infantry.

testimony of their children, both George and Jennie had ancestral ties to Richmond, Virginia. In the 1870 and 1880 census, George, Jennie and family were documented in Portsmouth, with George working as a general laborer. Not having much luck finding the family in the 1900 census, I did learn that Jennie Knight Williams passed away in 1909, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth. To date, Jennie’s grave has not been located.

In Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Sgt. George Williams is interred with several other family members, Present are the graves of some of his children, including sons George, Jr. (1878-1941), and Edward (Edinborough) (1866-1934). Edward (Edinborough) Williams is interred next to his wife, Hattie A. Churchwell Williams (1867-1934), daughter of Isaac and Ellen Churchwell, free persons of color.

Central portion of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. The Williams Family plot is on the lower left. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

Over the years, flooding hasn’t spared Sgt. George William’s family plot either. Edward’s (Edinborough’s) gravestone is currently upside down, and his wife Hattie’s has shifted slowly to the right of its original location. And I’ve come to wonder how Sgt. George Williams is even buried in Lincoln Memorial. After all, according to military records, he’d died about 1901, and yet the earliest recorded burials in Lincoln Memorial began in 1913.

One possibility is that Sgt. Williams’ children had his grave moved to Lincoln after the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex became increasingly overgrown in the 1940s. It wouldn’t be the first instance of grave relocations to Lincoln from other historically African American burial grounds in the area. The family of realtor and businessman Thomas William Newbie (1879-1936), had done the same in the 1970s, and the grave of Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884), of the 28th U. S. Colored Infantry, was moved to Lincoln during the construction of Portsmouth’s historic Truxtun community in 1919. Although George rests among family in Lincoln Memorial, it’s still somewhat disheartening to think of him resting apart from his wife, Jennie, buried somewhere in the rear of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. There’s a logical conclusion; George’s children had moved the only ancestral grave they could find amidst the overgrowth.

Perhaps fate is the reason why I stumbled across Sgt. Williams’ gravesite, to help tell his family story. Or maybe I just got lucky, spotting the grave of a local freedom fighter I didn’t expect to find while carefully tracing a path amidst flood waters and sunken graves. Or maybe I’m just overthinking again, and the buzzing sounds in my ear are my annoyed ancestors telling me to just be happy with the discovery. Either way, finding Sgt. George Williams is a great reminder that in cemetery preservation, despite all disappointments, the delays, lack of funding, cooperation, and in my case, chronic health issues, there are still wonderful discoveries to be made that keep the awful tug of hopelessness at bay. The job’s never a small task, but every little bit helps the larger goal. You have to keep trying, no matter what.

As for the flooding, I hope someday that funds can be secured to fix the problem. Thousands of families have connections to Lincoln Memorial, and no matter the conditions, descendants and the surrounding community remain committed to maintaining family connections to this sacred ground. This is especially evident every Memorial Day (Decoration Day) weekend, where hundreds come out, clean the gravesites they can reach, and decorate them with flowers, telling stories of ancestors and sharing memories while they work. The constant flooding only makes these family moments, precious as they are, that much harder to accomplish. Floods erase inscriptions and valuable history. It has to be remedied. There are simply too many priceless stories and family legacies at peril. ♦

Virginia: Update on a Tidewater Freedom Fighter

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card

Pvt. Albert Jones, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, enlistment card

 

Great news for Spring. Pvt. Albert Jones is getting a new headstone! Our request from February has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was delivered to Ogg Stone Works on March 21st. Pvt. Jones’ grave has been unmarked for over 78 years, ever since the terrible tragedy that claimed his life on February 27, 1940. The recent rains have caused a terrible bout of flooding in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. We hope to be able to mark his gravesite for the monument company as soon as the flood waters recede.

Pvt. Albert Jones will be the 19th Civil War veteran to receive a new headstone. The others are: Cpl. John Cross, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. Ashley Lewis, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Arthur Beasley, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. David Bailey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Cpl George Baysmore, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Austin Smallwood, 14th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery; Pvt. Richard Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Thomas Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris; Sgt. Lewis Rodgers, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Zachariah Taylor, 5th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Samuel Dyes, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Washington Milbey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. James “Jim” Edwards, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Edmond Riddick, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Henry Brinkley, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Alfred Savage, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; and Landsman John Hodges. ♥

 

Portsmouth, Virginia: Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop

 

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card

Pvt. Albert Jones, Enlistment Card

 

Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop

 

“On the out skirts of Portsmouth, Virginia, where one seldom hears of or goes for sight seeing lives Mr. Albert Jones. In a four room cottage at 726 Lindsey Avenue, the aged Civil War veteran lives alone with the care of Mr. Jones’ niece, who resides next door to him. He has managed to survive his ninety-fifth year. It is almost a miracle to see a man at his age as supple as he.

On entering a scanty room in the small house, Mr. Jones was nodding in a chair near the stove. When asked about his early life, he straightened up, crossed his legs, and said, “I’s perty old – ninety six. I was born a slave in Souf Hampton county, but my mastah was mighty good to me. He won’t ruff; dat is ‘f yer done right.”

The aged man cleared his throat and chuckled. Then he said, “But you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer. ‘Course he wuz good to me, ‘cause I never done none of ‘em. My work won’t hard neiver. I had to wait on my mastah, open de gates for him, drive de wagon and tend de horses. I was sort of a house boy.”

“Fer twenty years I stayed wif mastah, and I didn’t try to run away. When I wuz twenty one, me and one of my brothers run away to fight wif the Yankees. Us left Souf Hampton county and went to Petersburg. Dere we got some food. Den us went to Fort Hatton where we met some more slaves who had done run away. When we got in Fort Hatton, us had to cross a bridge to git to de Yankees. De rebels had torn de bridge down. We all got together and builded back de bridge, and we went on to de Yankees. Dey give us food and clothes.

The old man then got up and emptied his mouth of the tobacco juice, scratched his bald head and continued. “Yer know, I was one of de first colored cavalry soljers, and I fought in Company ‘K.’ I fought for three years and a half. Sometimes I slept out doors, and sometimes I slept in a tent. De Yankees always give us plenty of blankets.”

“During the war some un us had to always stay up nights and watch fer de rebels. Plenty of nights I has watched, but de rebels never ‘tacked us when I wuz on.”

“Not only wuz dere men slaves dat run to de Yankees, but some un de women slaves followed dere husbands. Dey use to help by washing and cooking.”

“One day when I wuz fighting, de rebels shot at me, and dey sent a bullet through my hand. I wuz lucky not to be kilt. Look! See how my hand is?”

The old man held up his right hand, and it was half closed. Due to the wound he received in the war, that was as far as he could open his hand.

Still looking at his hand Mr. Jones said, “But dat didn’t stop me, I had it bandaged and kept on fighting.”

“The uniform dat I wore wuz blue wif brass buttons; a blue cape, lined wif red flannel, black leather boots and a blue cap. I rode on a bay color horse – fact every body in Company ‘K’ had bay colored horses. I tooked my knap-sack and blankets on de horse back. In my knap-sack I had water, hard tacks and other food.”

“When de war ended, I goes back to my mastah and he treated me like his brother. Guess he wuz scared of me ‘cause I had so much ammunition on me. My brother, who went wif me to de Yankees, caught rheumatism doing de war. He died after de war ended.”


 

Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2011

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 23, 2011.

 

Albert Jones died the morning of  February 27, 1940, burned to death in a terrible house fire. Later that day, he was interred in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery by the Home Burial Company. He was 102 years old. As his burial site is currently unmarked, we have submitted the application for a new gravestone. ♦

(Source: WPA Slave Narratives, January 8, 1937)

Portsmouth, Virginia: Eight local heroes to receive new headstones

Eight more local heroes to receive new headstones. They were all born enslaved, and risked all in their collective escape to freedom to fight against the institution of slavery. Over the years, their gravestones have become weathered, vandalized, and nearly forgotten. The replacement gravestones for Pvt. Arthur Beasley, Pvt. David Bailey, and Cpl. George Baysmore, have already been approved and delivered to a local monument company for installation. Now, five others join them, and will be installed soon, weather permitting. They are:

 

Pvt. Austin Smallwood (ca. 1845-1894)

Bertie County, North Carolina

Co. I, 14th Regiment, U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

Smallwood USCT Copyright Orton 2010

Pvt. Austin Smallwood. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010

 


 

Pvt. Richard Reddick (ca. 1847-1896)

Perquimans County, North Carolina

Co. F, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2010 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Richard Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010

 


 

Pvt. Thomas Reddick (ca. 1838-1901)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Thomas Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 24, 2014

 


 

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris (1839-1902)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. A, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored infantry

Landsman, USS Allegheny

USS North Carolina, USS Cyane, USS Independence

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Morris USCT Copyright 2011 Nadia K. Orton

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 5, 2011

 


 

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884)

Gates County, North Carolina

Co. G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

 

Sgt. Rodgers Copyright 2012 Nadia Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, January 22, 2012