William Scroggins’ name turns up in only a few places — newspaper advertisements published in the 1800s, census reports, the March 1864 muster roll of a sidewheel steamboat named Nansemond and a weathered gravestone on a hillside serving as the final resting place for a handful of veterans connected with some extraordinary moments in American military history.

That hillside slopes toward Cemetery Lane in Ross, 7 miles north of Downtown Pittsburgh. Google Maps labels it  “African American Military Cemetery,” but many of those buried there are civilians. It’s small, measuring 130 feet by 135 feet, and accessing the cemetery is somewhat treacherous.

You must depart on foot from a Sheetz parking lot on Babcock Boulevard and walk up a winding section of nearby Cemetery Lane, taking care to stay clear of vehicles racing around downhill curves. There is no sidewalk. A hundred yards ahead you’ll see on the left a short lane clogged by weeds and fallen tree limbs. Climb up this lane several yards more to a hillside overrun with waist-high, thorny brush. Wade through the brush long enough and you’ll stumble across a few gravestones. This is the cemetery.

A recent visit led to the discovery of seven markers. More may exist in areas not thoroughly explored. One small stone is so weathered it’s barely readable. A careful examination revealed the name “Leonard Conrad” and the death date: Dec 2, 1912. Much of a third line chiseled into the stone is discolored and indecipherable, but one phrase is clear: “24 U.S. Infantry.”

Some people know the 24th Infantry Regiment as the Buffalo Soldiers. All the units’ enlisted men were Black. Created by an act of Congress after the Civil War, the 24th served in the American West during a volatile era in American history. Buffalo Soldiers chased and battled bandits, clashed with American Indians and garrisoned frontier military posts.

Details of Conrad’s life are as difficult to discern as the lettering on his gravestone. He turns up in the 1860 census as one of Leonard and Cath Conrad’s seven children. The family lived in a tiny Franklin County town called Dry Run, named for a stream that often ceased to flow. The father was a day laborer. Five decades later, son Leonard lived on Avery Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Side. He died there of asthma and heart disease eight months after the Titanic plunged to the Atlantic’s floor. Conrad was 61.

A headstone is visible in the weeds and fallen leaves in an African American military cemetery on Cemetery Lane in Ross on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Further up the hill from Conrad’s resting place lies a dirt-stained gravestone that reads “Walter Jones, Horseshoer Supply Co., 369th.” The 369th Infantry Regiment, more commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, carved a place in history during World War I. Composed almost entirely of Black soldiers, the 369th endured 191 days in the front-line trenches — more than any other American unit. In that time, the Hellfighters suffered 1,500 casualties, another WWI American unit record.

After the war, Jones was a laborer and lived on Humber Way in Pittsburgh’s Middle Hill. In 1932 he died of heart disease at age 41.

William Scroggins’ gravestone juts from weeds in the northwest corner of the cemetery. He served in the U.S. Navy. His simple stone includes the name of the ship on which he served, U.S.S. Nansemond.

The son of George and Mary Scroggins, a free Black couple who settled in Baltimore, William entered the world in 1843. The 1860 census shows the family of three living in a neighborhood whose residents are listed as Black or Mulatto. Husbands worked as porters and hack drivers, wives as wash women. At the time, tensions that would soon lead to a Civil War stressed the city. Baltimore was a mix of wealthy slave-owning families, Southern sympathizers and white abolitionists. In addition, Baltimore claimed the country’s largest population of free African Americans. 

Tension in the city turned to deadly rage on Friday, April 19, 1861. A week after rebel forces fired on Fort Sumter, a mob of Confederate supporters attacked a regiment of Massachusetts soldiers passing through Baltimore. Bricks, paving stones and bullets flew through the air. Four soldiers and 12 civilians died.

Before its commissioning as a naval vessel, the USS Nansemond was the merchant ship James F. Freeborn. (The Mariners’ Museum and Park)

In this explosive atmosphere, William Scroggins grew into manhood and became a barber.

His father, George, nearing age 50, forced a dramatic change on the family in June 1863 when he quit his job as a lumber wagon driver and enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. The 55th was sister to the famous 54th Massachusetts, the country’s first fully recognized Black military unit and subject of the popular 1989 movie “Glory.” The Union Army formed the 55th after the 54th reached its full complement of soldiers.

Six months later, on Dec. 11, son William answered the call. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy “at sea” aboard a sidewheel steamer named USS Nansemond, according to the ship’s muster roll. The Nansemond had been converted to a gunboat and assigned to enforce a Federal blockade of Southern ports.

Of the Nansemond’s 63-man crew, 28 were, like Scroggins, listed as “Negro.” They came from large cities such as New York and Baltimore and from rural outposts such as Haywood County, Tenn. In civilian life they worked as porters, cooks, stewards, laborers, butchers and barbers.

A day after Scroggins enlisted, the Nansemond steamed out of the Chesapeake Bay and headed south along the Atlantic coast. The ship encountered calm seas until 4 p.m., when it passed Cape Henry, near Norfolk. The crew felt a stiff breeze blowing from the south. By 10 o’clock, the breeze had roared to a gale. The Nansemond struggled through heavy seas until 3:45 the next morning. Then disaster struck.

A wave crashed over the boat’s port side with such force that it destroyed part of the pilot house and smashed the engine and fire room bulkheads. The concussive force of the water stalled the Nansemond’s engines, reported its commander, Lt. R.H. Lamson. Powerless, the ship began to drift. Minutes later, a second wave crashed over the starboard side. Between 4 and 5 feet of water now sloshed in the Nansemond’s hold.

The tumultuous sea raised Nansemond’s stern, causing water in the ship’s hold to rush forward. Nansemond’s bow dipped low into the sea. Lt. Lamson prepared to take extraordinary measures to keep his ship from sinking.

• • • 

On occasion, the small Ross cemetery in which Scroggins is buried emerges as a subject on popular Facebook groups exploring Pittsburgh history. One is John Schalcosky’s “The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh.”

“Every year or so somebody angrily posts about the cemetery,” he said. “They say, ‘Who’s responsible?’”

He’s tried to sort that out, and it’s complicated. The cemetery shows up on the Allegheny County Real Estate website as a small square parcel labeled “not assessed.” The last sale on record occurred in 1905 but because the handwriting on the document is illegible, tracking a deed is difficult. Schalcosky has found records indicating the property was owned as recently as 1952 by the Watch Tower Bible Tract Society, an organization that supports the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A man named Charles Taze Russell founded the society. A native of Allegheny City, now the North Side, Russell died in 1916. He’s buried in what’s now Rosemont, Mt. Hope and Evergreen United Cemeteries, a few hundred yards from Scroggins’ grave.

Years ago, the Masonic Fund Society for the County of Allegheny acquired property surrounding the cemetery. Schalcosky is well known for his work with Pittsburgh history — he’s president of two historical societies, one in Ross and another in West View — so the Masons reached out to him and handed over the cemetery records. 

Schalcosky looked at the list of those buried there and wondered, “Who are these people?” He spent countless hours seeking answers.

‘I’m obsessed with genealogy,” he said. “I found the death certificates, found out when and how they died.”

Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Keogh, Montana, in 1890. (Library of Congress)

Schalcosky then created a spreadsheet containing nearly 100 names. All are African American. Six are listed as veterans. The earliest burial is Lizzie Adams, interred Jan. 11, 1909. Most recent is Josephine Payne, great-granddaughter of William Scroggins. She was buried Sept. 6, 1995. Several members of the Scroggins family are buried there. Schalcosky continues to research the names and has discovered a number of photographs, newspaper obituaries and other records.

Another site that’s focused attention on the cemetery is Rich Condon’s Facebook group, Civil War Pittsburgh, which focuses on Western Pennsylvania’s Civil War history. Condon writes for publications such as Civil War Times and Emerging Civil War. Like Schalcosky, he’s written posts about the cemetery and the veterans buried there. In 2019, he walked up Cemetery Lane to get a firsthand look at the place.

“My girlfriend and I were up there for a few hours, cleaning what we could with our hands,” said Condon, who at the time was a park ranger at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County. (He’s now a ranger at Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, S.C.) “I had poison ivy all over my palms for the next few weeks.”

During his visit, Condon paused at the Walter Jones headstone.

“He’s a Harlem Hellfighter,” Condon said. “There’s this veteran from a famous World War I unit just covered in brush in the middle of the cemetery. It blew my mind.”

Both Schalcosky and Condon would like to see the cemetery made more accessible and preserved, or at least recognized with a sign or other notation that includes information about those buried there. 

A headstone marks the gravesite of Walter Jones in an African American military cemetery on Cemetery Lane in Ross on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

• • •

With the Nansemond’s bow dipping low into the water, Lamson ordered his crew to dismantle the ship’s forward guns and toss them overboard. Then he told his crew to hurl between three and four tons of ordinance into the sea. Next, the port bow anchor was cut loose. 

Relieved of weight, the bow lifted and the boat was saved. Later that night, after the gale calmed, the Nansemond anchored in a thick fog near Cape Henry. 

“I regret exceedingly the unfortunate necessity of throwing our guns overboard, but I am confident that nothing else could have kept the vessel from foundering,” Lamson wrote to acting Rear Admiral S.P. Lee, commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

After repairs, the Nansemond resumed its role in the vast Union effort to choke off the Confederacy by blocking Southern ports. Scroggins settled into his role as a cook, a demanding job requiring long and irregular hours. Cooks, however, earned premium pay of $25 or $30 per month.

Sidewheel steamers such as the Nansemond moved quickly through the water and therefore proved perfectly suited for chasing down small, light ships attempting to smuggle cotton, weapons and other war material along the Atlantic coast.

At first, the blockade was quite porous — 9 out of 10 smuggling ships successfully passed through in the war’s early years — but by 1864 Union vessels had tightened their grip on Southern ports. Federal ships intercepted 1 in 3 blockade runners that year. Scroggins was part of an effort that proved ruinous to the Southern economy.

On the evening of May 6, 1864, the Nansemond clashed with the new and imposing Confederate ironclad CSS Raleigh. Sometime after dark, the Raleigh steamed from the Cape Fear River and entered the Atlantic near Wilmington, N.C. A torpedo attached to a pole jutted from the ship’s bow.

The ironclad lumbered forward to engage a flotilla of Union gunboats. First, the Raleigh attempted to ram a paddle steamer named Britannia. That failed.

Around midnight, the Nansemond’s acting commander J.H. Porter spotted a low-lying ship motionless on the sea. He flashed an identification signal, and the mysterious ship suddenly came to life and steered directly for the Nansemond. 

As the ship drew within 500 yards, Porter could see the outline of its hull and the white water churned by its propeller. He could see it was an ironclad. The Nansemond fired off a shot, to no effect. The Raleigh fired back but missed.

The Nansemond steamed off, slowly pulling away from the slower ironclad, and a crew member fired off a blue flare to alert other Union gunboats. After exchanging another round of fire, the Nansemond and the Raleigh lost sight of each other.

At sunup, the Raleigh again went on the attack, but the ship was too slow. Its ramming attempts proved futile. At 7 a.m. the Raleigh headed back to the Cape Fear River in an attempt to beat the tide. A Confederate flag flew from her bow. Before reaching safety, the ship ran aground on a bar. When the tide went out, the weight of the ship’s armor and guns bore down on the keel, crushing timbers and breaking the Raleigh’s back. The ironclad was a total loss after a week of service in the Confederate Navy.

A headstone is partially concealed in brush in an African American military cemetery on Cemetery Lane in Ross on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

• • •

William Scroggins was discharged from service on Jan. 18, 1865, and soon settled in Pittsburgh. The 1870 census shows him living as a boarder at the home of a widow named Alitha Williamson in Allegheny City, now the North Side. Three of the men boarding there, including Scroggins, were barbers in their early 20s. 

A few years later Scroggins married Mary Cook of Pittsburgh. The couple moved to Sandusky Street on the North Side and started a family that would swell to include 10 children. Scroggins opened a barber shop on North Diamond Street. The shop shows up in newspaper advertisements that read “Fashionable Hair Dressing and Saving Saloon, Bath Rooms Attached.”

Williams’ father, George, moved to Pittsburgh from Baltimore, and both father and son joined the Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Post of the veterans organization known as Grand Army of the Republic. George Scroggins died in 1884. He was 73. He’s buried in Union Dale Cemetery on the North Side.

William then moved his family to East Street and continued for years to work as a barber. He operated a shop on Ohio Street, and on at least one occasion needed help. A classified ad published in The Pittsburgh Press in 1898 reads, “WANTED — Good Colored Barber. W.H. Scroggins.” A longtime friend described Scroggins as “a sober, industrious man of good moral habits.”

His wife Mary died in 1910. William moved with son Oliver to a 2½ story house on Vinceton Street in the Observatory Hill neighborhood. For years William suffered with a chronic infection, and by 1916 it had left him paralyzed. He died at home Dec. 21 of that year.

Two days later, on a Saturday evening, mourners gathered at the Vinceton Street home for Scroggins’ funeral. The next morning, Dec. 24, while the rest of Pittsburgh prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve, a horse-drawn hearse carried him to the Ross Township hillside cemetery for a private burial in a plot next to his wife, Mary. For this final trip, Scroggins rested in a $125 casket. He wore a new $15 suit and a pair of $2 gloves. The man whose remains now rest under a tangle of weeds and brush was originally placed in the ground in a manner fitting a gentleman and a veteran.

A headstone is visible the brush in an African American military cemetery on Cemetery Lane in Ross on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.