May 26, 2000


MEMORIAL DAY AND 135 YEARS OF MEMORIES

Presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs

On this Memorial Day, David Schneider, like thousands of Americans in cemeteries across the country, will go to the grave of a family member and leave flowers. It's a way to show his appreciation for a relative who died protecting the freedoms that all Americans enjoy.

But when Schneider looks at the grave of his relative, Pvt. James T. Martin, he won't be thinking about the hazards of D-Day, Inchon, the Tet Offensive or even Verdun. More likely, his forebearer could have tasted combat at Bull Run, Chancellorsville or Gettysburg.

Laying graveside flowers is a tradition dating to the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, when people began to decorate new graves of the country's fallen fighters from both sides. Although most Memorial Day visitors honor their relatives who died in the 20th Century, the fallen of the Civil War are still being remembered 135 years after the war's end. Of VAís 118 national cemeteries for veterans, more than half contain Civil War dead.

Schneider's father, Norman, tracked down his own great, great grandfather to VAís Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore, only to find that in 1865 the U.S. government misspelled his name on the headstone. The cemetery ordered a new stone to mark the grave of Martin, whose original marker read J. R. Mardin.

Memorial Day will also find the great, great granddaughter of Cpl. George W. Lee at a marker at the Barrancas VA National Cemetery in Pensacola, Fla. The cemetery director recently ordered the marker following Peggy Lynn Dueittís long search to locate her ancestorís final resting place in a communal gravesite of unknown soldiers.

The Sons of Union Veterans will lead the public in strewing flowers on the graves at Loudon Park again this Memorial Day. Keeping alive the original tradition of Decoration Day -- as Memorial Day was known at the end of the Civil War — is only part of the Sons' mission. They locate graves of unrecognized Civil War soldiers throughout the country and, where possible, try to get them inscribed to honor their military service.

Loudon Park's Cemetery Director Robin Pohlman said the Sons organize the Memorial Day Service every year. The ceremony features war-period dress and music of the era. Pete Johnston — local commander and member of the national graves registration committee — along with his father and other Sons have searched and found many details about Civil War soldiers buried in Maryland cemeteries.

Johnston, his father Ed, and Sons Charles Earp and Ken Hershberger also volunteer to research the history of the cemetery and those buried in it. Earp's great-uncle and great-aunt, who are buried there, established a monument - a reclining soldier - to unknown Civil War soldiers.

For people looking for the final resting place of ancestral soldiers or sailors, the search often starts or ends at VA national cemeteries, especially the 59 Civil War-era national cemeteries now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The last of them were accepted this year.

The Decoration Day tradition is one that will be renewed at all of VA's national cemeteries this year, but none generate more excitement among visitors than the Civil War national cemeteries. Located in 23 states, the historical cemeteries also shelter the remains of veterans of every war and branch of service in U.S. history.

The Civil War cemeteries are significant not only for their old gravesites but also for their lodges for their superintendents, rostrums for public events and other structures. In 1862, a federal law authorized the first national cemeteries. A later law directed the War Department to enclose them with stone or iron fences, replace the wooden headboards on graves with more durable ones and provide housing facilities for the superintendents. Charged with this responsibility, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs designed a prototype lodge with mansard roof; 20 of VA's cemeteries on the Register still have the original buildings. They are built of the stone or brick that was locally available.

Ohio infantryman James T. Martin died in a Baltimore hospital but great-great grandson Schneider of Niskayuna, N.Y., did not know of his existence until he began his ancestral tracing in Ohio three years ago. A county history book revealed the Army enlistment and death in Baltimore. Schneider's inquiry to the National Archives produced Martin's military and pension records, which included his date of death and burial in 1865 and pinpointed the cemetery to one of two with the name Loudon Park.

An archives record showed a correction of "d" to "t" in "Martin," so when Schneider and his son found a gravesite at the Loudon Park National Cemetery matching the recorded date of death they knew that J. R. Mardin was their James T. Martin. Schneider was pleased that the cemetery will probably have a new marker on the gravesite before the 135th anniversary of Martin's burial August 6.

The National Archives and her grandmotherís bible entries gave Peggy Dueitt of Mobile, Ala., enough information about her ancestor to decide that her family's long-held belief that he was a Confederate was wrong. Though Fort Barrancas was initially a Confederate fort, George W. Lee enlisted after it fell to the Union and died there of yellow fever in 1864. Dueitt believed that since Lee died at the fort he would be buried in the national cemetery with other casualties from the fort. Not finding a marker there, she showed Cemetery Director Sandra Beckley her archives information and family records and convinced her that Lee was among the 653 Civil War unknowns buried there. Beckley readily ordered a memorial marker for Lee.

After five years of research, Dueitt was thrilled to look at her ancestorís inscribed recognition when the marker was installed in April. "Itís gorgeous there," she exclaimed, adding that she will be back at the cemetery on Memorial Day to see the massive display of flags on all the graves.

The Quartermaster Corps that designed many of the first national cemeteries contributed some of the men who chased President Lincoln's assassin, only to drown in Virginia's Rappahannock River. They are buried in the Corps-designed Alexandria, Va., National Cemetery, another of the 59 on the Register. The small cemetery nearly filled to capacity by 1864 with remains moved from burial grounds further south after General Ulysses Grant's assault against Richmond.

Alexandria National Cemetery was the first one nominated for the Register. One of the last two VA national cemeteries registered this year, at San Antonio, Texas, includes among its remains 256 black Buffalo Soldiers and 13 Medal of Honor recipients.

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