On May 5, 1868, General Logan, commander of
the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order declaring that Union and
Confederate war dead would be honored on May 30 with flowers laid
on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery. That was the origin of Decoration Day, or, as we are more apt to call it, Memorial Day. In cemeteries all over the country, small G.A.R. markers stand next to larger stones, and in May veterans and scouting troops plant a small American flag near each marker. There's no better time to go looking for a Civil War burial site.
My mother's family had its own Civil War soldier to honor,
and, when I was young, Decoration Day was the traditional day for the family to gather in North
Sewickley Cemetery, right outside Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, for a day of clean-up and family
reminiscing. Five McCaskey sisters, accompanied by
picnic baskets, flower pots, rakes, hoes, grumbling husbands, and assorted
children spent the day moving from gravestone to gravestone, not mourning but
celebrating the good times they remembered.
I learned my family's history during those yearly excursions to North Sewickley. There was the marker of the family matriarch, who brought her seven children from
Ireland to the hills of Pennsylvania in 1795, traveling first in steerage, and
then on foot. The stone bore only the single word, "Nancy," but it
still stands firmly rooted on that hillside. A small stone marks the grave of cousin Electa, believed to have died in the flu epidemic of 1918 (although the stone says 1917); another grave memorializes a tiny James McCaskey, a victim of diphtheria at the age of two in 1896. By noon, the decorating crew had
usually made its way to a circle of pine trees near the graves of the McCaskey sisters' grandparents. Lunch was spread on blankets while someone told the story of Sgt. James McCaskey, who died in
defense of his country in 1862. Long before I found the official account of James's death, I knew the story of the brave young man left sitting up against a tree on the battlefield while he bled to death from cannon fire.
Cemeteries can prove
to be a rich source for genealogical research.But as always, a researcher must accept any such
evidence with a high degree of skepticism until it can be confirmed. Here are some suggestions for doing your own cemetery
1. Gather as much
information as you can before you actually visit the cemetery, unless, of
course, you're just curious and
not looking for anything or anyone in particular. Assuming you are interested in specific individuals, start
by asking questions. If you know
the cemetery you plan to visit, check with the caretaker or sexton to see if
there is a directory. If the
cemetery is no longer an active one, look for the pastor of the nearest church.
Or try the local history section of the public library.
2. An obituary from a
local newspaper can tell you which cemetery to visit. That's how David Welch and I eventually found the grave of
Nellie M. Chase. Her obituary, reprinted in a Reading, PA newspaper, said she
was living in Paris, TN at the time of her death. It also suggested that she and her husband ran
the railroad hotel there. The obituary noted that both of them actually died in Louisville, KY. That information led to a local newspaper article about
yellow fever deaths in Paris, TN. Other yellow fever articles led to a book on their employer,
the L & R Railroad, which in turn gave the name of the cemetery in which Nellie and her husband were buried. After
that it only took a quick inquiry to the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville to
discover the exact location of their burial plots and to get a photograph of
their joined headstones.
3. Take the right
equipment with you. Plan to take notes on every headstone
you identify, but also be sure to have a camera. Notes have a way of perpetuating small errors. You'll want a picture later to
double-check the details. Traditionally, Christian graves are oriented toward the east; i.e.,
the headstone is at the west end
of the plot and the foot of the coffin at the east end, in preparation for
Resurrection Day. For that reason,
inscriptions on a headstone will be clearer if the picture is taken in the
4. Don't forget the insect spray. Mosquitoes can be formidable guards
against your investigations. And
unless the cemetery is very well maintained, take gardening gloves and pruning
shears. I really wanted to try to
straighten Uncle James's headstone, but a crop of fresh poison ivy dissuaded
me. A spray bottle of water also
comes in handy. Inscriptions are
easier to read when they are wet, and you may need to wash away soil
5. Be alert
to the clues on the stones themselves. Carvings on the headstone may provide clues to religion or military
service. Children's markers are likely to have flowers or small animals. I like to think this little figure on cousin Electa's stone is a rabbit.
6. Tombstones frequently bear birth and death dates, although birth years
are less to be trusted than death years. An inscription reading "Beloved
Wife" usually means the woman's husband was still alive at her death. Stones reading "Mother" and "Father" confirm the existence of children alive at the time of the parents' deaths.
7. Unmarried sons and daughters are more
likely to be buried near their parents. The graves of a woman or a couple near
small unmarked stones may indicate the deaths of unnamed infants. Death dates
can tie a victim to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or an epidemic of
influenza or yellow fever.
8. Note the names on graves close to those of your own family members. You may be looking at their friends and neighbors. Cemeteries have many stories to tell. Let the stones speak to you.