Voices of Liberation and Freedom: The Fall of Richmond, April 3rd, 1865

Richmond, the Confederate capital, entered by the Union army. nypl.org https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ff22-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99


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.


Richmond, Virginia

The Lumpkin’s Jail Site and the African Burial Ground (ca. 1750-1816)


Copyright 2013 Nadia K. Orton

Lumpkin’s Jail Site, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend. Richmond, Virginia, April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton


“Lumpkin’s Jail was owned by Robert Lumpkin, who maximized profits in his compound by including lodging for slave traders, a slave holding facility, an auction house, and a residence for his family. A port city with water, ground and rail connections, Richmond was linked to slave buying markets such as Charleston and New Orleans. Enslaved Africans referred to Lumpkin’s Jail as ‘the Devil’s Half Acre,’ reflecting the despair and anger of people separated forever from their families. However, Mary Lumpkin, a black woman who was Robert’s widow, boosted post-Civil War black education when, in 1867, she rented the complex to a Christian school, which evolved into Virginia Union University.” — Richmond Slave Trail historical wayside marker


Touring the African Burial Ground, April 6, 2013, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend, Richmond, Virginia. There were about 30 people in the group on that particular day, despite the cold. Tour led by Ana Edwards, Chair, Sacred Ground Reclamation Project.


“This Burial Ground for Negroes (ca. 1750-1816), reclaimed as Richmond’s African Burial Ground, is the oldest municipal cemetery for enslaved and free Blacks known to have existed in the Richmond area, and may be among the oldest in the entire country.

This is the final resting place for many of the Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in chains from West and Central Africa, as well as for people of African descent born in Virginia. While disrespected, exploited and terribly abused in their lifetimes, their forced, unpaid labor established an economic basis for the development not only of Richmond, Virginia, and the South, but also contributed to the United States as a whole. Because of Richmond’s central role in this country’s internal slave trade, descendants of those buried here can likely be found throughout North America…

This Burial Ground also was the site of the Town Gallows, where Virginia’s young freedom-fighting hero Gabriel of the nearby Prosser plantation was executed on Oct. 10, 1800, for his role in attempting to lead a mass rebellion against slavery. Courageously, Gabriel planned a coup against Virginia’s government. He established methodology from observing the American Revolution and the triumphs of enslaved Africans in Haiti. Gabriel and 25 other enslaved Africans were executed here or in three other locations after courts convicted them for their roles in the conspiracy. In 2007, Governor Timothy M. Kaine pardoned Gabriel, saying, ‘Gabriel’s cause – the end of slavery and furtherance of equality of all people – has prevailed in the light of history.’” – African Burial Ground historical wayside marker


Charleston, South Carolina

Denmark Vesey, Slave Rebellion Organizer 

Born ca. 1767-July 2, 1822



Denmark Vesey Statue Charleston SC Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Statue in honor of Denmark Vesey (ca. 1767-1822). Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. “Days of Grace” weekend, September 6, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton.


“Denmark Vesey, previously named Telemaque was born either in Africa or on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. At the age of 14, he was purchased by the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey and transported to the French Colony of St. Domingue, where the young African was sold along with 389 other slaves. Claimed to be suffering from epilepsy by his new owner, Denmark was returned to Captain Vesey.

The young man accompanied Captain Vesey on many trading voyages as part of the crew. In 1783, immediately after the American Revolution, Captain Vesey relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where Denmark continued to serve him for approximately another 17 years. In 1799, however, Denmark won $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery of Charleston and purchased his freedom for $600.

Denmark Vesey was a highly skilled carpenter and well known within free black and slave society. According to his contemporaries, he harbored frustration at his inability to legally free his wife and children. His antislavery sentiments may have received a wider audience when in 1818 enslaved and free black Charlestonians established a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church where he served as a class leader.

Vesey envisioned a community where all would be free, but recently passed state legislation of 1820 made legal emancipation of slaves nearly impossible. Furthermore, municipal authorities repeated attacks on the AME Church convinced Vesey slavery was such a violation of God’s law that rebellion was necessary to obtain liberty. He placed his own life at risk as he dared to plan to recruit others to achieve the goal of freedom.”

(Second panel)

Denmark Vesey

Vesey and his lieutenants “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, Peter Poyas, and Monday Gell developed a plan for a revolt which may have involved thousands of followers. Their war of liberation was originally planned for July 14, 1822, and called for conspirators to seize weapons and set fires around the city. Once reinforced by rural slaves, as many as possible were to escape by ship to Haiti where African people had already abolished slavery and formed an independent nation. According to Congregational minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the plan was the “most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves.”

When two slaves informed the authorities of the plot, the conspirators tried to move the date to June 16, but their plan failed. Arrests and trials followed and beginning on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day, Vesey and 34 of his compatriots were hanged. This figure represents the greatest number of slave conspiracy related executions in American history. 37 were banished, most outside the United States, and four whites were briefly fined and incarcerated for sympathizing with the conspirators. To strengthen security the authorities demolished the AME Church, and the state legislature imposed rigorous new laws, including the Negro Seaman Acts subjecting free black sailors from outside the state to arrest when their ships docked in Carolina ports. Free black men were required to have white guardians, and those that left the state were barred from returning. By the mid-1820s, the city fortified itself with an arsenal and barracks. In 1842, the Military College of South Carolina, now known as The Citadel, was established on that same site.

Despite daunting opposition, Vesey’s Sprit and liberating vision did not die. He became an inspiring symbol of freedom for later abolitionists including David Walker, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His resolve demonstrates the timeless universality of men and women’s desire for freedom and justice, irrespective of race, creed, condition, or color.”


Beaufort County, South Carolina

Grave of Robert Smalls, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery


Robert Smalls memorial Beaufort SC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Memorial to Robert Smalls, Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K Orton, December 13, 2014.


“Born a slave in Beaufort in 1839, Robert Smalls lived to serve as a Congressman of the United States. In 1862, he commandeered and delivered to Union forces the Confederate gunboat ‘Planter,’ on which he was a crewman. His career as a freeman included service as a delegate to the 1868 and 1895 State Constitutional Conventions, election to the S. C. House and Senate, and 9 years in Congress.” – Historical marker, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, South Carolina.



Harriet Ann Jacobs and the Maritime Underground Railroad

Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina


Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

Maritime Underground Railroad wayside marker, Edenton, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 19, 2014.













“Runaways depended on maritime blacks (African-Americans). During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seaman. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferryman, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready market for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens, and other potential collaborators.

It was this maritime culture that assisted Harriet Jacobs in her escape from Edenton by sea in 1842. In her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), Jacobs describes how the Edenton African American community, including black seaman, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.”  — Martime Underground Railroad historical wayside marker



The Tiffin Tribune (Ohio), April 6, 1865

Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia


“Remarkable and Gratifying – The announcement that General Weitzel had captured Richmond has a peculiar interest for Cincinnatians, be-cause this gallant officer is a native of that city; but another feature of the event has a more general interest. His corps is composed of colored troops, and a large proportion of these were slaves, men who had es-caped from the lash and exchanged their shackles for muskets. The Confederacy proposed to found itself upon slavery. This institution was its chief cornerstone. Richmond was the center of the slave aristocracy, the heart of the rebellion. Now imagine the slave-drivers, with their garments gathered up about them, moving double-quick out at one side of the city, as their former slaves, with heads erect, guns in hand, and powder dry, marched in at the other, under the national emblem, to the music of the Union, and a picture is presented of humiliation and retribution on one hand, and triumph on the other, that is worthy of being transferred to canvas. The feelings of the chivalric men and high strung women on that occasion may be imagined; no pen could de-scribe them. It was a remarkable event, and one that will gratify the loyal people, and receive a special page in history.”


USCT Monument Petersburg National Battlefield VA Copyright Nadia Orton 2012

“In Memory of the Valorous Service of Regiments and Companies of the U. S. Colored Troops, Army of the James and Army of the Potomac, Siege of Petersburg, 1864-1865.” Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2012.



Richmond, Virginia

Garland H. White, Chaplain. 28th U. S. Colored Infantry

Letter, April 12, 1865


“I have just returned from the city of Richmond, my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I retired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out of the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.

We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. IN camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for [one] by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was brought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questions as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”

“My name is Garland H. White.”

“What was your mother’s name?”


“Where was you born?”

“In Hanover County, in this State.”

“Where was you sold from?”

“From this city.”

“What was the name of the man who bought you?”

“Robert Toombs.”

“Where did he live?”

“In the State of Georgia.”

“Where did you leave him?”

“At Washington.”

“Where did you go then?”

“To Canada.”

“Where do you live now?”

“In Ohio.”

“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnesses several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentleman of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think that they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted the order of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Calvary, colored, were still dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.”


Pvt Collins 5 Mass Cav Calvary Cemetery Norfolk Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Severn S. Collins, of Northampton County, Virginia, Company L, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton,  May 23, 2015.


(Garland H. White) “Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28 U. S. C. T. – better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers…


Sgt. Lewis Rogers USCT Portsmouth Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1845-1884) of Gates County, North Carolina, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015.


(Garland H. White) “Some people do not seem to know that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and I am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.”



Thomas Morris Chester

African-American Civil War Correspondent


“The white soldiers, when orders for advancing were passed along the line, were posted nearer Richmond than the negroes. But, with that prompt obe-dience to orders that has never made the discipline of the blacks the pride of their officers, they soon passed over their own and the rebel works, and took the Osborne road directly for the city. When within a few miles of the city I heard Gen. Kautz give the order to Gen. Draper to take the left-hand side of the road, that Devin’s division might pass by. Gen. Draper obeyed the order implicitly, and, in order that he might not be in the way with his brigade, put it upon a double-quick, and never stopped until it entered the limits of the city. The colored troops had orders not to pass through the city, but to go around it and man the inner fortifications. When Devin’s division came within the outskirts of the city, and marched by General Draper’s bri-gade, who had stacked their arms, and whose drum corps was playing na-tional airs, they were loudly cheered by the colored troops, and they failed to respond, either from exhaustion or a want of courtesy. To Gen. Draper belongs the credit of having the first organization enter the city, and none are better acquainted with this fact than the officers of the divi-sion who are claiming the undeserved honor. Gen. Draper’s brigade is composed of the 22nd, 36th, and 118th U. S. colored troops, the 36th being the first to enter Richmond.”


1st Sgt Firbee 36 USCI Elizabeth City Copyright 2013 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt Peter Firbee, of Currituck County, North Carolina, Co. A, 36th USCI. Oak Grove Cemetery, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2013.

Pvt. Jerome Morris, of Norfolk County, Virginia, Co. K. 36 USCI. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 10, 2012.















Wilmington, North Carolina

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Company D, 37th U. S. Colored Infantry

Address before the J. C. Abbott Post, Grand Army of the Republic

Wilmington, North Carolina, 1884


“Why are over 50,000 colored soldiers laying beneath the sod to-day? Why are their bones bleaching in the dust to night? For the privileges we are enjoying to-day. Civil rights, political rights, soldiers’ and sailors’ rights, and religious rights; and we propose to protect those rights, let come what will or may. Let weal or woe, let us survive or perish, we will maintain those rights.” ♥


1st Sgt. J. S. W. Eagles Wilmington NC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Co. D, 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Wilmington National Cemetery, Wilmington, NC. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 18, 2014

Washington, District of Columbia

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

Celebrating its 20th year anniversary, July 18-21, 2018

African American Civil War Monument DC Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

African American Civil War Memorial. Washington, D. C. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 5, 2017

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)

Delaware: Tracing family roots, past and present

African American Cemetery Delaware - Copyright 2017 Nadia K. Orton

African-American cemetery, Kent County, Delaware, August 19, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton


In mid-August, we attended a family reunion in Wilmington, Delaware, for two of the paternal branches of our collective family tree, lines that extend to the 18th-century in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County (est. 1765), and City of Portsmouth (est. 1752), and to Warren County (est. 1779), in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

On the way to the reunion, and in keeping with the theme of “family,” we stopped at this peaceful spot, a well maintained cemetery in Kent County, Delaware. It’s located near the birthplace of Thomas Craig (ca. 1831-1896), a free person of color and Civil War Navy veteran who was included in my first blog a few years ago. (Thomas is buried near my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Max Jolly Orton, also a Navy veteran, and other ancestors in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia.)

Walking through the sacred ground, I reflected on Thomas Craig’s family history, and wondered if any of his relatives were laid to rest in the cemetery. In all probability, they’re not, as the family moved to several areas throughout Kent and New Castle counties after 1855, when Thomas left Delaware and moved to New York City to enlist in the Union Navy. Still, it was nice to be able to visit the region, and forge another tangible connection to history, a moment only made possible through the protection and preservation of the cemetery. ♥


Accomack County, Virginia: Documenting a historically African-American cemetery, Father’s Day, 2017

Documenting a historically African American cemetery on Father’s Day (June 18th), 2017, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. One of the oldest, inhabited areas of the state,  it’s become one of our favorite family destinations. The cemetery is just north of the birthplace of a family elder, who was a much beloved and respected teacher and educator of historic I. C. Norcom High School, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Unfortunately, most of the oldest sections of the cemetery were too overgrown for closer investigation, and my father warned of snakes and other dangers that may have been hidden by the overgrowth. We observed some areas that had been cleared by family members in order to reach their ancestors’ gravesites, perhaps in observance of Decoration Day, or Father’s Day. It was an encouraging thought; we’ll return soon in the hope of further exploration.  ♥

Accomack County African American cemetery copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

Historical African American cemetery in Accomack County, Virginia


African American cemetery Accomack Virginia copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

Historical African American cemetery in Accomack County, Virginia

On Memorial Day, Reflecting on African-American History – The National Trust for Historic Preservation

First Memorial Day plaque Charleston SC Copyright Nadia Orton 2015

Plaque honoring the first Memorial Day in the United States. Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 6, 2015

Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.

Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.

My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.

They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…

Surry County, Virginia: The slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle

Slave/tenant house at Bacons Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012

Slave/tenant house at Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012


Photos of the slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle (ca. 1665). We had the opportunity to visit during an event a few years ago. I’d suffered a bilateral lower leg fracture some months prior, so those present would remember my fashionable orthopedic boot. Physical discomfort aside, it was an amazing experience. There were a few descendants of slaves and former tenant workers present. One descendant, Lucy, recounted memories of growing up at Bacon’s Castle. Her family had once lived in a similar structure, and she could vividly remember the sound of the rain on the building’s tin roof. It’s in these stories that history becomes a tangible thing, and connects with our present day.

A historical wayside marker in front of the house reads:

This building was first constructed in 1829 by the Cocke family, descendants of Arthur Allen. There was a single entry door and a porch. In 1834 there were eighty slaves working on the property, some of whom were probably housed in this building. The Hankins family, who owned the property during the Civil War, added an addition and possibly removed the porch in 1849. The floor plan today matches what would have been present in the late 1800s.

In the 1940s, several families were still living on the Bacon’s Castle property. The slave house was wired for electricity and a small kitchen added to the back of the building. Although three or four enslaved families would have lived here prior to the Civil War, the interior was modified to accommodate only one or two tenants after the war. The kitchen addition was removed in the 1990s, returning the building to its antebellum appearance.



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Bacons castle slave/tenant dwelling, 2012 Orton


Bacon's Castle Historical Marker, Colonial Trial, Surry. June 9, 2012

Bacon’s Castle historical marker, Colonial Trial, Surry County, Virginia. June 9, 2012





The Descendants Corner: The Savage Family, Mt. Calvary Cemetery

Rawls and Savage-Portsmouth, Va.

(l-r) Cousins James M. Rawls and Horace S. Savage, Jr.  Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet cousins Mr. Horace S. Savage Jr., and Mr. James M. Rawls, descendants of Pvt. Alfred Savage, a veteran of the Civil War, member of Company D, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. Mr. Savage is Alfred’s great-grandson, and Mr. Rawls is Alfred’s great-great-grandson.

The road to meeting Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls took a rather circuitous path. After researching marriage records, newspaper articles, and various other documents, I traced the family from Virginia, to Tennessee, up to Pennsylvania, and down to Georgia. I reached out to one descendant in Georgia who put me in touch with Mr. Savage, who, as it turns out, lives only twenty minutes away from our family in Virginia.

I had the great honor of speaking to Mr. Savage for the first time on his 89th birthday to let him know I’d found his Civil War ancestor. Mr. Savage, a graduate of I. C. Norcom High School, and Hampton University, first began his long career in education as a science teacher, becoming a part of I. C. Norcom’s faculty in 1950. He was appointed head coach of I. C. Norcom’s football team, the Greyhounds, and school track team by 1959, and is the former Assistant Superintendent and Clerk of the School Board of Portsmouth City Public Schools. He retired from the position in 1987, after a thirty-seven year career with the Portsmouth School System, but continues to be actively involved in social and civic affairs. In honor of his extensive service to the community, he was named Portsmouth’s First Citizen of the Year for 1998. I thought it a small world when I found a picture of him with my first cousin Vernon Orton, former principal of S. H. Clarke Junior High School, when Mr. Savage was appointed Vernon’s administrative assistant in 1969.

After a brief introduction, we talked for a while, about Alfred, and how I’d come to find his descendants. Mr. Savage is the keeper of his family’s history, and knew all about Alfred, but did not know the exact location of his burial site. I told him I’d first discovered Pvt. Savage’s gravestone in Mt. Calvary Cemetery a few years ago, but, due to the weathered inscription on the stone, could only make out the surname “Savage.” I was in the middle of a three-year research study of the over seventy-seven United States Colored Troops interred in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, and determined to learn this unknown veteran’s first name. I photographed Pvt. Savage’s gravestone several different times, knowing that different light conditions can sometimes make inscriptions on headstones easier to read. However, none of these attempts worked. Wetting the stone also did not make his name any clearer. So, I resorted to an old-fashioned method. Using my index finger, I traced the letters of his first name, and the letters seemed to spell “A-L-F ‘ D.” Subsequent research verified that the headstone did belong to Alfred Savage of Co. D, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mr. Savage was very happy to hear of the discovery, and after a nice conversation, we agreed to meet at the cemetery in two days’ time to find Alfred.

Alfred Savage (abt. 1837-1899/1900). Mr. Horace S. Savage, Jr., remembers growing up seeing this photo in his grandparents’ sitting room, an area entered only on formal occasions. Courtesy the Savage Family.

Pvt. Alfred Savage enlisted on December 24th, 1863 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, just two days after the 2nd Regiment was organized. In his service record, he is described as born in Nansemond County, Virginia (subsequent census records note his place of birth in North Carolina), aged twenty-six years old, five feet, nine inches tall, of a light complexion, with dark hair and dark eyes. He listed his occupation as a general laborer.

The unit was under the command of Col. George Washington Cole (1827-1875), who was promoted to the post on December 10, 1863. A native of New York, Col. Cole first entered the service in Elmira, enlisting in 1861 as a member of the 12th New York Infantry. He later attained the rank of Brevet Brigadier General in March, 1865.

Brevet Brigadier General George Washington Cole (1827-1875). He is buried in Saint Vrain Cemetery, Mora County, AZ. Source: Marsha ?

Brevet Brigadier General George Washington Cole (1827-1875). He is buried in Saint Vrain Cemetery, Mora County, AZ. Source: Marsha Smith, Backbone Ridge History Group, 2013.

African American enlistees often faced discrimination from white Union troops and their officers, but Col. Cole appears to have been on good terms with the men of the 2nd Regiment. African American Civil War correspondent, Thomas Morris Chester, in a dispatch dated September 24, 1864 from Deep Bottom, Virginia to the Philadelphia Press, reported that “there is no braver soldier in the service, and no one enjoys to a greater degree the respect of his officers or the affection of his men” (Chester, 1864).

Alfred Savage was one of the thousands of African Americans eager to fight to secure freedom for themselves, their families, and their people. In his book, After the Glory: The Struggle of Black Civil War Veterans, historian Donald R. Shaffer writes:

Whereas black recruitment was largely a matter of military necessity from the perspective of the Lincoln Administration, African Americans had their own reasons for wanting to fight for the Union. Many black men, free men of color as well as slaves, were eager to strike a blow against slavery. Indeed, freedom was the foremost motivation behind their enlistment. White Northerners battled to save the Union, and white Southerners fought for Southern independence, but African-American troops joined up not just to gain freedom for themselves but also to release their people from bondage. Thomas J. Morgan, a white Union officer questioning black recruits in Tennessee, discovered this fact for himself. When one man told Morgan that his motive for joining the army was to “fight for freedom,” the officer reminded him that as a soldier he might be killed. The recruit replied simply, “But my people will be free.” (Shaffer, 2004)

Pvt. Savage was involved in several skirmishes during his three-year term of enlistment with the Union Army. He avoided the terrible fate of several of his fellow regiment members at Suffolk, Virginia, on March 9, 1864, but saw action at Jones Ford (Jones Bridge) on the Chickahominy River. He participated in several engagements in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the assault on Petersburg, part of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, on June 18, 1864.

Ambulance drill at Headquarters Army of Potomac, near Brandy Station, Va., March, 1864. LOC 3g07974v

Ambulance drill at Headquarters Army of Potomac, near Brandy Station, Va., March, 1864. LOC 3g07974v

Many of Pvt. Alfred Savage’s military duties during his service involved detachments to the Ambulance Corps. The corps was organized in 1862 by Dr. Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, and formally established on March 16, 1864. Pvt. Savage functioned as a driver in the corps in Virginia and North Carolina at various points between June 1, 1864 and early 1865. By June of 1865, his regiment was sent to Texas for duty on the Rio Grande, and by October of that year, Alfred was noted as the company cook. Pvt. Savage was discharged with the remaining members of his regiment on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

Upon his return to the Tidewater area, he married Margaret Mosby Powell, of Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1867. The family, Alfred, Margaret, son Christoper Columbus, and daughters Esther and Margaret, lived on Queen Street between 1870 and 1900, which was then a part of Portmouth’s Jefferson Ward.

Savage Family 1870 Portsmouth

The Alfred Savage Family. Portsmouth Jefferson Ward, 1870. Ancestry.com

Savage 1877 Portsmouth City Directory

Alfred and son Christopher Columbus Savage, 1877 Portsmouth City Directory. The asterisk denotes “colored.” Ancestry.com

Pvt. Alfred Savage passed on February 2, 1899, and is buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

A humid Thursday morning found the four of us, me, my mother, Brenda, Mr. Savage, and Mr. Rawls, at Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in our journey to find Pvt. Alfred Savage’s last resting place. There’s currently no working map for the cemetery (which may soon be remedied), and I remembered Alfred’s burial as being in Mt. Olive Cemetery, the oldest in the cemetery complex. We carefully made our way past various gravestones and sunken grave sites in our effort to find Alfred. At some point, I realized I’d made a mistake with the location of Pvt. Savage’s burial site, and with great humility, admitted as much. “It’s alright,” Mr. Savage said. “We’re on a mission. We’re going to find him.” I agreed, and promised I wasn’t leaving until Alfred was found. I greatly appreciated Mr. Savage’s and Mr. Rawl’s understanding and support. Mr. Rawls, whom we’d just met that morning, joked about the walk being “great exercise.”

A short time later, and with some relief, I spotted Pvt. Savage in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and called Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage over to the spot. After explaining how I figured out the gravestone belonged to Alfred, the men graciously agreed to a photo, and then began discussing their family history. I moved away just a bit, out of respect, and also for a few photographs. It was an amazing sight, to see the two of them standing by their ancestor’s grave site, talking about their mutual ancestry.

Mr. Savage’s paternal grandfather, Christopher Columbus Savage, is also interred in the cemetery complex, and after visiting Alfred, we went to look for his grave site. Mr. Savage recalled visiting the cemetery annually with his father, Horace S. Savage, Sr., to tend to Christopher’s grave, not realizing that Alfred’s grave site was nearby. Horace Savage, Sr. (1897-1975), was an influential force in Portsmouth’s African American community. A forty-four year employee of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, he was one of the original founders of the Eureka Club, and a member of Truxtun Lodge No. 199. Horace Sr. and Horace Jr., father and son, always managed to find Christopher Columbus’ grave by using a particular tree as a landmark. However, once the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex became overgrown between 1945 and 1980, and was virtually impassable, Mr. Savage could no longer visit his grandfather’s grave site. “The grass was so high, you couldn’t get in here!” Mr. Savage remarked, gesturing towards the front of the cemetery complex.

Mr. Savage shared additional memories of his early visits to the cemetery while we continued to look for signs of Christopher’s grave. He mentioned that every May 30th, the community participated in Memorial Day parades to the cemetery. This tradition is an outgrowth of the first Decoration Day, when thousands of former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina honored Union soldiers that had perished in the local Confederate prison and were buried in a mass grave. On May 1, 1865, the former slaves re-buried the Union soldiers and dedicated the new cemetery with a parade and ceremony.

Historian David W. Blight writes:

After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” (Blight, for the Newark Star Ledger)

In Portsmouth, the destinations of the parades of which Mr. Savage remembers would alternate between the city’s historic black cemeteries, ending at Mt. Calvary Cemetery one year, and in the subsequent year, at Lincoln Memorial. When the parades came to Mt. Calvary Cemetery, the programs would be held at the grave site of fraternalist John W. Brown (1864-1945), a North Carolina native that was once known as the “Father of Fraternal Organizations” in the Tidewater region. Mr. Brown was the former Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Virginia, the past Grand Eminent Commander of the Knights Templar of Virginia, and the past Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows.

Barnes Family Monument. It includes fraternal symbols of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Square and Compass of the Masons. Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Barnes Family Monument. Annual Memorial Day ceremonies were held in this area. The monument includes fraternal symbols of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Square and Compass of the Masons. Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Although the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (also referred to as Fisher’s Hill), was overgrown in later years, and visitation had ceased, its importance to history was never forgotten by elder members of Portmouth’s African American community. Mr. Savage shared that he, and fellow members of the Truxtun Masonic Lodge No. 199, hosted regular clean-up days at the cemetery in the early 1980s. The historic lodge was founded by Mr. Savage’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Tucker (1867-1954) in Portsmouth’s Truxtun community in 1919. Other volunteer groups helped as well, and the city soon lent some support, although Mr. Savage said that it was “fleeting” during this period. Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls are encouraged by the city’s recent work in the cemetery complex, and that the city appears more committed to restoring the cemetery complex, a “call to conscience” Mr. Savage noted, to help bring the condition of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex up to par with other city cemeteries like Cedar Grove and Olive Branch.

After a while longer, Mr. Savage came to the conclusion that Christopher may not have had a grave stone. I pointed out that it may simply be buried out of sight, as the cemeteries have had repeated bouts of flooding and soil disturbance over the years. In addition to the whereabouts of Christopher’s grave lies another mystery. My research has uncovered that Pvt. Alfred Savage had a brother, John Kilby Savage, who was a Civil War Union veteran. Pvt. John Kilby Savage was also a member of the 2nd Regiment, enlisting one day after Alfred on December 25, 1863. He mustered into service on January 8, 1864, at Fort Monroe, and mustered out at Brazos Santiago, Texas, February 12, 1866. John Kilby Savage may also be buried in the cemetery complex. His and Christopher Columbus’ headstones may yet be future finds in the cemetery.

Rawls and Savage discuss history

Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage discuss their family history. In the foreground, the gravestone of Civil War Navy Veteran Reginius Watkins. Mt. Calvary Cemetery

On that day, I was honored to be of some help to members of the Savage Family line in locating their ancestor, and I was again reminded of the importance of these sacred sites. Place and memory are two concepts that are important in how we remember our ancestors and where we come from. I witnessed it when Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls were prompted to discuss family history while standing in the cemetery near the grave site of their common ancestor. The gravestone is faded, but the person for whom it was placed left an enduring legacy. Alfred Savage, and his brother John Kilby Savage, fought for freedom, serving their families and communities. They faced mortal dangers to help achieve better lives for their people. That tradition of service carried itself forward in the family line, through the hard work and social activism of the Savage Family descendants in Portsmouth through to the 20th century.

Sometimes cemeteries are seen as haunted and forbidding; eerie places one visits only for a funeral service. African American cemeteries increasingly suffer an additional fate: destruction or demolition from gentrification, neglect, condemnation, or commercial development. Many cemeteries have been desecrated, or paved over, like the African Burial Ground in Richmond, Virginia, a site whose sanctity is still not secure, and is of strategic importance to a true understanding of the history of slavery in the United States and African Diaspora. Other burial grounds have been virtually destroyed, such as Laurel Cemetery, founded in 1852, in Baltimore, Maryland. The cemetery was originally studied by historian Agnes Kane Callum in her genealogical journal “Flower of the Forest.” Reporter Carl Schoettler defined it as “the first non-sectarian burial ground” for African Americans in Baltimore. The interments were supposedly moved in 1958, before the construction of the shopping center that now sits atop the site, but researchers estimate there are thousands of individuals that were never relocated, and remain beneath the buildings. There are similar stories from New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, and Alabama. In other locations, family members are barred access from their ancestors’ resting places. A recent story out of Seminole County, Florida details an eighty-seven year old woman whose grandparents are interred in what is now private property, who has not been allowed to visit their burial sites, a violation of state law.

I reflected on incidents such as these while I watched Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage discussing history. They illustrate the systemic manner in which the history that may be learned from African burial grounds can be lost. Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage were able to stand on the very ground where their ancestor is interred. In moments like these, tangible links to history are forged. Cemeteries are not grounds that do not warrant protection or respect. They are hallowed spaces where precious memories are preserved, that may be the last link to a community’s existence. How many more moments like these may be lost to time? How much history still remains to be reclaimed?

We learn from our elders, past and present, as I did in my conversations with Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls. I was fortunate to learn specifics of parades that I’ve only read about in newspaper archives. What a treat to be able to fill in the gaps of documentary history with oral testimonies! I thank Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls for venturing out with us that morning. Thank you, and I hope to continue to do my part in carrying forward the tradition of holding the legacies of our forebears sacred, and preserving their history for future generations.

Portsmouth, VA: Mount Calvary Cemetery, a battle with time and neglect – African American Today, The Virginian Pilot

Mt. Calvary Cemetery Virginian-Pilot

Brenda Orton, left, and daughter Nadia walk through the Mount Calvary Cemetery, part of a complex of graveyards they hope to get included on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo: Steve Earley, The Virginian-Pilot)

By Cherise Newsome

In a cemetery complex tucked off of Deep Creek Boulevard and Pulaski Street, Nadia Orton tiptoes among the dead.

Stepping on the sunken, wet ground, Orton keeps an eye out for feral dogs that have roamed the field for the last few months.

“I think they were marking their territory,” she said.

But the dogs are mistaken. This grave site doesn’t belong to them. Orton says it belongs to the city, to the community, to the families of the 8,000-plus people who lay in one of Portsmouth’s oldest black cemeteries, referred to as the Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex. Some scholars estimate 15,000 may lie at the site originally used when burials were segregated. It formally opened in 1879, though some burials happened earlier.

Notables like former slave-turned-newspaper columnist Jeffrey T. Wilson is buried there. So is prominent black educator I.C. Norcom, though his gravestone has vanished. Children’s advocate Ida Barbour rests there, too, along with musicians, oystermen and business leaders. Orton wants their legacy to stand for generations to come.  READ MORE