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).

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Richmond, Virginia: Evergreen Cemetery, funerary iconography

December 18, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Funerary iconography can be defined as the identification of symbols and motifs and the interpretation of their cultural meaning. Over the last eleven years, I’ve been fortunate to visit hundreds of cemeteries in multiple states, and have been able to spot very unique headstones containing intricate icons and symbols. Sometimes, the headstones are handmade, such as the gravestone of Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, of Portsmouth, Virginia, constructed and designed by her husband, a Japanese national.

Matilda Ella Hale Nakano - Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth Va.
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, June 21, 2012, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Matilda Ella’s ancestral roots were tied to Bertie and Hertford counties, North Carolina. The kanji at the base of Matilda Ella’s gravestone indicates that her husband, Hosuke, made the gravestone himself. The top of the gravestone contains images of ivy, denoting eternal life and/or affection, and the “crown and cross,” representing redemption through faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other cases, the families would order a stone from the U. S. Government or monument company, and request personal touches at an additional cost, like the gravestone of Pvt. Thomas Fisher, of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, in New Bern, North Carolina, whose military-issue headstone contains a masonic emblem of the square and compass, by his wife, Lucy Fisher.


In Richmond, I’m in my sixth year of researching interments of Evergreen Cemetery, and have documented 7,245 to date, most covering the period where there are no official interment records (pre-1926). However, my physical and health limitations have hindered my ability to visit as often as I would like. Still, I’ve managed to snag enough photos to provide a small peek into this amazing site, and plan more photo sessions in the near future.

Between May 18-19, 2012, I attended a cemetery seminar in Eastville, Virginia, conducted by representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Part of that seminar involved a discussion of funerary iconography. Here, I share some of that valuable insight, with examples of some of the gravestones that bear those symbols in Evergreen Cemetery.

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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

Portsmouth, Virginia: Update on one of Portsmouth’s “Harlem Hellfighters”

Gravestone of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow. Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy Find-a-Grave user Leslie W.

We’re pleased to report that we now have a photo of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow’s headstone. It was taken by Find-a-Grave volunteer Leslie Wickham, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and she graciously allowed me to use it.

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, a Portsmouth, Virginia native, served during World War I. He was a member of the 369th Infantry, 93rd Division, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.” He was featured in an earlier blog from last year, “In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans,” in recognition of Veterans Day. At the time, Pvt. Snow wasn’t listed in the Find-a-Grave database for Cypress Hills National, so I added the listing, and sent a photo request. Leslie fulfilled the request just a few weeks later. Thanks so much, Leslie!

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