Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cemetery Tour 1: William Martin aka Ben Alexander

Note: This is the first in a series of five scripts prepared for presenters during Sunday's 14th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour, "Neighbors in Section E." As it happened, I ended up presenting the script myself, so there is no presenter photo. A photo of the tombstone of William Martin, aka Benjamin Alexander, will have to suffice. See the end note for more information about the tombstone and some of the misinformation surrounding it.


Ladies and gentlemen, dozens of men and women born into slavery are buried in this beautiful cemetery, scattered from one end to the other. But I have the proud distinction of being the only one among them who was able to enlist as a Union soldier during the Civil War and join the fight that freed us. That is why my grave over there is marked by a veteran’s stone, like those first installed in 1873 at Arlington.

My name is William Benjamin Martin, but if you look at my tombstone you’ll see the name Benjamin Alexander upon it. Although my mother named me William Martin and I died as William Martin, I lived my first 16 years as Ben Alexander, a slave, and then enlisted and served, too, under the name assigned by the man who owned me. 

I was born June 22, maybe in 1846, on the plantation of James Rice Alexander near Huntsville in the heart of an area of north Missouri known as “Little Dixie.” The Alexanders had moved from Kentucky to Missouri in the 1820s bringing my kinfolks with them as slaves. 

The Alexanders prospered, growing tobacco and hemp, and by 1860, just before the Civil War began, owned an even dozen of us. My parents, my brothers and sisters and I worked the fields and kept the house for them.

Although my mother remembered the day I was born, she could neither read nor write --- slaves were not allowed to --- and so she kept no family record. But I was about 16 when I ran away, that much I know.

In January of 1863, we heard by the grapevine that Mr. Lincoln and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But our hopes for freedom were dashed when we learned it did not apply in states that had not seceded, including Missouri, and that we still were slaves.

But we also heard that black men were being recruited by the Union at St. Louis to join the fight. So I ran away one night and walked to Benton Barracks where I enlisted as a private in the 1st Missouri Regiment of Colored Infantry. Black men were not allowed to serve with whites, of course, so our unit was segregated. But our officers all were white. Even in the North, black men were not considered fit to lead.

We spent our first year on picket duty across Louisiana and then were transferred to Brazos Santiago, a Texas barrier island where we blocked Confederates from resupplying themselves through Matamoros and Brownsville.

Our only battle, indeed the last pitched battle of the Civil War, came more than a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. On May 11, 1865, we were among Union troops who attacked the Confederate encampment in Brownsville and launched a three-day battle known as Palminto Ranch.


After my honorable discharge in 1866, I came home to northeast Missouri and found day jobs in Moberly, Macon and Kirksville. It was in Kirksville that I met Miss Tiney Root and we were married there on May 25, 1877, and started our family of nine children. Of that number, only little Clara died young.

In 1881, Tiney’s half-brother --- Abe Prather --- got word from a friend of his, John C. Johnson, that there was work to be had at Chariton, Iowa. John was a single man --- always would be --- and a master gardener. He had saved enough money by 1875 to buy five acres on the south edge of Chariton and by 1881 was keeping the town supplied with fresh vegetables and fruit and, during the winter, canned goods.

So the four of us loaded all we had --- and our children --- in wagons and headed for Lucas County. When we arrived, there were only about 30 black people in Chariton --- including John --- so we were pioneers. 

This all would change in 1883, however, when the White Breast Coal Co. brought in maybe 200 black miners and their families from Virginia to work in the mines at Cleveland and for a time after that, Lucas County’s back population numbered several hundred.


I found work as a drayman soon after we arrived in Chariton and followed that that trade for more than 40 years, loading, driving and unloading wagons first for Daniel Eikenberry and then for the George J. Stewart Lumber and Fuel Co. Whatever needed to be transported, I transported.

Tiney and I bought our own home at the intersection of West Linden Avenue and South 15th Street and raised our children there. I never learned to read or write, although Tiney could so she made sure the children attended the Chariton schools.

We helped organize Ebenezer Baptist Church --- I was ordained a deacon there --- but we were outnumbered by Methodists, so our little congregation faded. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was just down the hill from our house --- where what you call Carpenter’s Hall is today --- and we shifted our allegiance there.

All in all, Tiney and I had a good life in Chariton, but there were no good jobs for young black people here, so most of our children moved elsewhere. 

Tiney took sick and died during August of 1916, just before her 70th birthday, and I buried her over there next to where I would eventually rest, not far from her brother and sister-in-law, Abe and Priscilla Prather. I followed Tiney to the grave 13 years later, on Oct. 20, 1929, aged about 82.


I never could afford a tombstone for Tiney, so her grave still is unmarked. My grave might have been unmarked, too, but in 1934 Mr. Charles E. Lewis, himself a veteran of both the Spanish American War and World War I, undertook on behalf of Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post 102 the task of ensuring that all veteran graves in the Chariton Cemetery were marked. It was he who ordered the stone that I now rest under, but regulations required that I be buried under the name I served as --- Benjamin Alexander --- even though no one in Chariton ever had known me as that. So in the end, I could not escape that final reminder of slavery.


End note: Some years ago, it was noted that the flag holder at the William Martin/Benjamin Alexander gravesite was a Confederate one. While three Confederate veterans --- George W. Alexander, Napoleon Bonaparte Branner and Isaac Fain --- are buried in the Chariton Cemetery, it seemed remarkably inappropriate that the grave site of a black man born into slavery who served in the Union Army should be marked by a symbol of the Confederacy.

So I obtained a new Grand Army of the Republic flag holder for the gravesite and turned the Confederate marker over to the Lucas County Department of Veteran Affairs.

At some point during the last year or so, the Confederate flag holder reappeared at the gravesite and the G.A.R. marker disappeared. So I've traded it out again for a G.A.R. marker and will turn the Confederate flag holder in again.

I'm sure this has been done with the best of intentions and there are a couple of possible explanations. The inscription on the government-issue stone reads, "Co. C, 62, U.S.C." That translates as "Co. C, 62nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry." Remember that black soldiers were not allowed to enlist in white Union units during the Civil War. Someone may be misinterpreting the "C" in "U.S.C." here as "Confederate." 

The other possible explanation is that someone is confusing the grave of William Martin/Benjamin Alexander with that of George W. Alexander, some distance across the cemetery to the east, who was indeed a Confederate veteran. Although George W. Alexander's surname and William Martin's slave surname were the same, there was no relationship between the men other than the fact they would have known each other in Chariton.

George W. Alexander's grave is marked with a Confederate stone --- distinctive as all Confederate stones are by its pointed top. The tops of all Union markers are rounded. Nor do Confederate tombstones bear the initials "U.S."

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