Care for a Veteran's Grave

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


On Veteran’s Day we honor the men and women who served this country in our armed forces. We have parades with young active duty troops marching in their uniforms. You will find the old veterans in the crowd watching, wearing distinctive clothing, hats, badges and pins of rank, announcing their military service. The main point of Veteran’s Day is to thank and actively remember our living veterans, these defenders of our freedom who served and then came home to get on with their lives. Memorial Day is for the defenders who did not come home to marry, to build a life or enjoy the freedom they help preserved. I am in Colorado Springs, the home of Ft. Carson. That Army post has lost over 250 soldiers since 9-11, young men and women who will never grow old.

There are over twelve different towns and cities in this country that claim title to the location where Memorial Day started. While stationed in Columbus, Mississippi I was informed that the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus was the true starting place for the annual, regular recognition of our dead soldiers of the Civil War. In 1866, the local southern women were placing flowers on the graves of confederate soldiers who died at the Battle of Shiloh. They noticed the graves of Union dead were overgrown with weeds and generally neglected. Enemies or not, these dead men were the loved ones of American families who, like the Confederate dead, had given their lives for a cause they believed in. These grieving southern women cleared the graves, perhaps of the very men who killed their family members, then place flowers on those Union graves. Their unbiased efforts created the tradition of “Decoration Day” and this eventually melted into the national day of remembrance for our killed in action that became Memorial Day.

At the end of the Civil War, the Union dead were removed from their first burial sites and re-interred at National Cemeteries. There are no Union dead buried at Friendship Cemetery, at least none that are known. There are 2194 listed Confederate dead in that cemetery, but only 345 soldiers and a female army nurse have names and units on the grave markers. The remaining 1848 headstones are marked “Unknown Confederate Dead”.

In battle, Confederate and Union troops fell and died next to each other and then were buried in haste. If the truth were known, I would suggest that Union dead are probably still at Friendship Cemetery.

I used to walk the cemetery looking for markers that had some of my different family surnames on them. In Mississippi, the green moss grows on the headstones and can eventually completely obscure the names. I contacted a National Cemetery and spoke to a caretaker about how to clean the markers. Using this information I walked the rows of headstones with my buckets of water and scrub brushes and I cleaned the markers of fallen confederates with whom I shared surnames. There was no way that I could clean them all.

I found a marked headstone of a soldier from the 37th Alabama surrounded by hundreds of “Unknown” markers. It was completely obscured, but by the end of that visit I had it ready.

Over the course of many trips to Friendship Cemetery, I cleaned the “Unknown” markers around that lone marked headstone. “Friendship” is not a military cemetery, it was established in 1849 and is still being used. Besides the military markers, many of the pre-1900 headstones are extremely interesting. It has been over five years and I am sure the moss is starting to win the battle again.

There are thousands of cemeteries in this country that have those very distinctive military headstones. There is a tradition of placing American flags at these graves on Memorial Day. I believe we need to broaden that tradition and provide a little gentle care, cleaning and even maintenance for these last reminders of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. Local cemeteries do not have the money or manpower to keep these fallen hero’s final markers cared for in the manner that they deserve.

Honor a veteran this year and every year by tending to a headstone. If you have a family member or friend who was a veteran, take up the cause and tend to their last resting place, or find a veteran’s grave and tend to it. Sadly, there are so many new headstones that will need care on future Memorial Days.




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Copyright 2008, 2012 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.


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