Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The honor of William Martin



Someone has made a mistake when interpreting the U.S.C. engraved on the tombstone of Benjamin Alexander, also known as William Martin, and installed a Confederate flag holder near it. "U.S.C." stands for U.S. Colored Troops, Benjamin/William was a freed slave and a proud Union veteran of the Civil War. We've got to get this man a G.A.R. flag holder.

There are so darned many good stories buried out there in the Chariton Cemetery I wish I had the time to retire and write a book.

This one is about a freed Missouri slave who served the Union cause honorably during the Civil War, spent the last 50 years of his life in Chariton and died here at nearly 90 on Oct. 20, 1929, but is buried under a tombstone bearing a name that bears no resemblance to the one his Lucas County neighbors had known him by for all of those years.

The story emerged after I went out to the cemetery Monday  to find the tombstones of Abe and Priscilla Prather, who I wrote about yesterday. The Prathers also were born into slavery. Abe died in Chariton during 1905 and his wife, during 1908. They are buried in the section of the cemetery just northeast of the shelter house. Those are their tombstones at left.

What puzzled me when I found the Prathers was the fact they were buried at opposite ends of a large lot, Abe to the north and Priscilla to the south, which suggested there might be other burials between them. So I went up to the city clerk's office at City Hall, where cemetery records are maintained by extremely helpful people. We headed into the vault.

There are some glitches in the cemetery records, however --- primarily to do with a somewhat rocky transition during the 1920s when the cemetery passed from private hands, the Stanton family, into city control, an issue forced by the city because the Stantons were not doing a good job of maintaining that beautiful place.

We found burial register entries for both Abe and Priscilla, which took us to the lot plat --- but the location of neither grave was drawn in. Abe had purchased the lot in 1896. The plat did show, however, that Malvina Washington and Mary Walpole are buried there, too, in unmarked graves.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find out anything about either Malvina or Mary. There were no reports of their deaths in the Chariton newspapers, nor were their deaths registered in county records. They do not appear in census records.

It is possible that both were infants, grandchildren perhaps of Priscilla Mason Prather, but there is no guarantee of that. One or the other probably died in 1896, the year the lot was purchased.

Looking at the Prather plat, the name William Martin --- identified as an occupant of the lot immediately east --- caught my eye. Martin was the surname of one of Chariton's oldest black families. He is buried at Abe Prather's feet. Priscilla Prather, considerably older than her husband and in poor health, had lived with the William Martin family from the time of Abe's death until her own. By some accounts she was a sister-in-law; by others, an aunt.

Also buried on the William Martin lot, according to City Hall records, is William's wife, Tina J. Martin, and "Infant Martin," probably their daughter Clara.

But here's what really confused me. I had glanced at the only tombstone on that lot while at the cemetery. The tombstone marking William Martin's grave, the military stone at the top of this post, identifies the occupant as Benjamin Alexander, Co. C, 62, U.S.C.  That translates as Company C., 62nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

So I came home, searched for obituaries, census and other records and finally pieced together the story of William Martin --- also Benjamin Alexander.

According to his obituary (Herald-Patriot, Oct. 22, 1929), William was born on June 22, 1831, at Macon, Missouri, which is not quite accurate.

William actually was born during June of 1841, but at some point late in life added 10 years to his age. He was identified in his obituary as "almost a centenarian," but wasn't, something the 1900 and other census records confirm. In some cases, extreme old age --- at first a trial --- becomes a badge of honor. So William's actual birth occurred 10 years after the date his reported age at death would suggest.

Missouri was a slave state at the time, although a bitterly divided one, especially in the north --- where Macon is located.

During late 1863 or early 1864, when he was 22, William enlisted in Co. G, of the 62nd Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, organized at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis on Dec. 14, 1863. He served honorably until discharge in 1866, participating in engagements in Missouri, Louisiana and Texas.

William enlisted, however, as Benjamin Alexander rather than William Martin, although there are some indications in compiled records that he was known by both names during his time in service. Why? It's idle speculation, but entirely possible that William's status as a free black man was in doubt in Missouri at the time of his enlistment, so he enlisted under an alias. It also is possible, however, that he chose a new name after the war. His pension records might clarify what happened here, but at the moment it's impossible to say if his parents named him William, or Benjamin.

William seems to have returned to northwest Missouri after the war, and on Sept. 25, 1875, at Kirksville, married Tina J. Root. I couldn't locate Tina's obituary Tuesday, but Lucas County death records identify her father as Mack Root and her mother as Emily.

According to his obituary, William and Tina had lived in Chariton for 48 years at the time of his death, so they must have arrived not long after 1880 since they were not enumerated in the federal census of that year.

According to his 1929 obituary, "For many years he was employed with the Stewart Lumber and Fuel Company as a driver and for a time was also employed with the Eikenberry Company. He was actively engaged in his work until about eight or nine years ago, when his health commenced to fail."

William also had received a small pension resulting from what apparently was a minor disability incurred during his term of service. Chariton mayor George W. Alexander acted pro bono as attorney for "Martin, William, alias Alexander, Benjamin," during the early 1890s to secure that pension, granted officially on July 13, 1892.

George W. Alexander --- Tennessee native, Confederate officer, popular mayor and notable drunk --- remains one of Chariton's most colorful characters. There's more about him in this earlier post.

William and Tina J. Martin had nine children, one of whom --- Clara --- died as an infant. Those living at the time of William's death included Mrs. Effie Bailey, Claude Martin, Nathaniel Martin and Elizabeth Martin, all of Chariton; Carroll Martin, of Des Moines; Mrs.Vina Prentice, of Chicago; and Mrs. Jessie Bridges, of Des Moines. There also were seven grandchildren. Tina Martin had died Aug. 4, 1916, and she is buried in an unmarked grave by William's side.

The family home was located at 1503 West Linden Avenue. And funeral services were held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, then located on West Court Avenue.

William had, according to his obituary, "won the high regard of all with whom he came in contact" during his years in Chariton. "He was honest and upright in all his dealings and his demise will be deplored by many friends."

But when the time to order his tombstone arrived, it was discovered that the government --- while glad to issue one --- would do so only for a soldier bearing the name he enlisted under. So William Martin is now navigating eternity as Benjamin Alexander. But we know now who he really was.

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