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
Honoring the subject of my first blog years ago, Landsman Thomas Craig, a free-born African American Civil War Navy veteran from Delaware. After the war, Thomas served aboard the receiving ship Franklin with two of my paternal ancestors, great-great-great-grandfather Max, and great-great-grandfather Arthur, during the 1880s in Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. Thomas Craig and my great-great-great-grandfather Max Orton are buried about twenty feet apart in the rear of Mt. Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries of the historic Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Great-great-grandfather Arthur Orton is buried near the front of the cemetery complex, in the section known as Fishers Cemetery.
Over Decoration Day (Memorial Day) weekend, I visited the cemetery complex with my father to plant flags at the graves of the some of the several hundred veterans we’ve documented there. After planting a flag at Max’s gravesite, we walked over and stood before Thomas’ grave, and reflected on the historical connections between him and our family. Another detail popped into view, the fire ants at the base of his gravestone. They will have to be removed before his headstone can be cleaned and reset. His sacrifice for freedom and equality is not forgotten. The struggle continues…
Today we received word that a new headstone for 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Born enslaved, ca. 1840 in Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia, Martin escaped and enlisted on January 5, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in on January 25th. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, four inches tall, with a “light complexion, black eyes and hair.” His occupation was noted as “laborer.” During the war, he was present with his regiment at Point Lookout, Maryland, Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg and Richmond through December, 1864, and assigned to an ammunition train of the artillery brigade, January to April, 1865. Martin was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, Sergeant on March 23, 1866, and 1st Sergeant on July 28, 1866. He mustered out with the surviving members of his regiment on October 28, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.Continue reading