Today is the 153rd anniversary of the liberation of Richmond, Virginia, by Union forces during America’s Civil War, 1861-1865. The first soldiers to enter Richmond were the “colored” regiments of the Union Army, ranks formed of free and formerly enslaved African-Americans.
Our own ancestors were a part of this collective sacrifice and struggle for freedom, escaping slavery where they were held in bondage, and serving with the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 36th, and 37th Regiments of the United States Colored Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry, and as domestics, laundresses, and messengers in and around Union camps and hospitals. This post reflects just a few of the sites I’ve visited over the years that chronicle the long road to freedom.
A photo-essay series dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and how they were remembered in contemporary news media
New Hanover County, North Carolina
Wilmington National Cemetery, Pine Forest Cemetery
George E. Berden, the well known proprietor of a colored boarding house on North Water street, was found dead on the floor of his room yesterday morning, between 10 and 11 o’clock. Deceased had been under the treatment of a physician for the last ten years, but during the most of the time has been able to attend to his business. Wednesday night he was at a meeting of the J. C. Abbott Post No. 15, G. A. R., and was installed as quartermaster. He complained of feeling a little unwell and said he hoped the ceremonies of installation would be gotten through with as soon as possible. Being up so late the night previous, it was expected that he would sleep late yesterday morning, and it was not until the hour named that some one went to call him and found him dead. He had left his bed and dressed himself before the final summons came.
Deceased will be interred at the National cemetery, permission to that end having been obtained from the Secretary of War, Berden being a discharged soldier. He as about 42 years of age, and leaves a wife. — The Weekly Star, January 16, 1885
Found Dead – George E. Berden, colored, who kept a sailor’s boarding house on North Water street, between Chestnut and Mulberry, was found dead in his room this morning. He had been in feeble health for a considerable time, but was not considered in a dangerous condition and his death was a surprise to all his friends. He was a member of J. C. Abbott Post, No. 15, G. A. R., and was installed as Quartermaster of the Post last night. His remains will be interred in the National Cemetery. The deceased was about 42 years of age and leaves a wife but no children. — The Daily Review, January 8, 1885
I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.
Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.
“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.
I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE
The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.
Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them. READ MORE