Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Civil War unknown is laid to rest

A couple Sundays ago I posted about an unknown Union soldier who was killed at the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War. His bones had been discovered by chance, but the only clues to his identity were his New York-issued uniform buttons. His remains were returned to New York for proper burial.

This weekend, another unknown American from the Civil War is laid to rest. Due to the vagary of uniforms at this stage of the war when the Battle of Franklin was fought, making a determination of which army he was in by the buttons wasn’t possible, so his coffin was draped with both Union and Confederate flags, and his honor guard featured re-enactors from both sides. Furthermore, soil was collected from 18 different states associated with the Civil War to be poured into the man’s grave to ensure that at least something of his native home would be interred with his remains, including soul collected from the Devil’s Den section of the Gettysburg National Battlefield.

Most of this article comes from Kevin Walters of The Tennessean newspaper, with additional details from the Associated Press.

— Six months ago, workmen's shovels first pried loose the skeleton of a Civil War soldier buried 145 years ago in an unmarked grave on a field now under commercial development along Columbia Avenue.

Today, a new grave and coffin will cradle the man's bones. He will be buried under a monument of limestone in Rest Haven Cemetery with soil fetched from 18 Civil War states, North and South.

"This soldier represents all of the soldiers, the thousands that were lost and are still buried across the South," said Robin Hood, chairman of the Franklin Battlefield Task Force that organized the event.

It's unknown which side the soldier fought on when he was among the nearly 2,000 killed in the 1864 Battle of Franklin. Construction workers happened upon the anonymous soldier's shallow grave in May.

Military buttons found with the remains were from the Civil War, but they don't prove whether the soldier was a Union man or a Confederate, Hood said.

"Some of them were Union and some of them were Southern," he said. "And that late in the war a lot of the Southern buttons were Union buttons, because the Confederate buttons didn't hold up as well."

The coffin draped in Confederate and Union flags was transported from St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which served as a barracks and hospital during the conflict, to Rest Haven Cemetery in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by Civil War re-enactors.

A new memorial at the cemetery features a limestone column that was once part of the state Capitol, which served as Union stronghold during the war.

"If this man was a Union solider, his comrades may have actually passed through those columns," Hood said. "So it's fitting."

Yet men and women who have filed through St. Paul's Episcopal Church to see the man's coffin during the past two days say they don't want today's event — which has been planned down to the minute — to overshadow the humanity of someone whose name they probably will never know and whose beliefs they can only guess at.

Instead they say their thoughts turn to soldiers fighting everywhere today, and to their own mortality and legacies. What would you want to happen if someone dug up your bones?

"This was someone's son," said Kraig McNutt, who publishes a Battle of Franklin blog. "He probably wrote home to his wife and talked about his conditions at the time and how hungry he was. … He was an American soldier who was fighting for what he believed in, regardless of what side he was on."

Since the bones were unearthed, speculation about the man's life and death has varied. There's no proof about who he was.

There was no marker on the grave. No identification was found with his skeleton except a handful of brass buttons carrying a federal eagle symbol, a fired MiniƩ ball, tacks from the soles of his boots and a glass bead. All of these will be buried today with the bones.

Fighting tore through Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, leaving thousands of dead Union and Confederate soldiers — mostly farther north on Columbia Avenue of where the skeleton was discovered.

That has led to speculation from historians that the man died sometime in December 1864, after the Battle of Nashville, when Union troops pursued Confederate forces back through Franklin.

Some have said the man might have been a Confederate soldier who was wearing Union buttons.

"Folks can discuss it as much as they like but we'll never know," said retired teacher Bill Heard, 60, of Cookeville, Tenn., who wore a navy blue Union uniform as he stood guard over the coffin. "Some folks just like to take ownership."

The unknown soldier is being buried in Rest Haven Cemetery in Franklin — a city that was part of the Confederacy — rather than another military cemetery simply because Franklin is where he was originally buried.

"If, obviously, we knew which state he was from or which army he fought for, we would look into those locations," said Robin Hood, funeral organizer. Rest Haven is "an historic cemetery and not just anyplace."

For two days, hundreds of people have creaked along the wooden floors of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was used as a barracks for Union troops during the Civil War occupation of Franklin. More than 400 had come through by midmorning Friday.

Part of the outpouring can be traced to national and local media coverage. A film crew is recording the events for a documentary, and two living sons of Civil War veterans will attend.

But McNutt, who is a re-enactor, thinks some people are flocking to the event because it's "a little like a trophy to them" rather than to remember the man.
"I think there are some who — to be quite bold, if you will — they want to continue to live in the past," McNutt said. "They still want to fight these wars and have these arguments."

Yet people coming to the coffin — some in uniform, some with cameras, some bearing gifts — said they kept this man's sacrifice and others' foremost on their minds. Restaurateur Danny Eldridge, 58, a Franklin resident who wore a Confederate butternut wool uniform, also helped stand guard over the coffin. The larger lessons of the Civil War are still alive today, he said.

"The Civil War actually made us a stronger nation than I think what we would have been without it," Eldridge said.

Candice Lawen, 38, brought her six children, who placed roses next to the coffin. The trip was a history lesson for her kids, whom she home-schools. The unknown soldier's death affected her.

"At the end of his life, nobody knew where he was or anything," Lawen said. "His parents didn't know where he was. It's really sad. It's great that he can be honored."

The burial of a man he never knew also affected Greg Wade, founder of the Franklin Civil War Round Table. He thought of his own family — including a son serving in the Army, his daughter in the Navy, and another son who's a police officer — and their work.

"I've got kids in the service myself and if anything ever happened, I'd want someone to take care of them," Wade said.

Among the history buffs paying tribute to him were two old men whose fathers fought on opposing sides in the War Between the States.

The services were attended by two elderly men whose fathers served in the Civil War.
Harold Becker's father fought for the Union in the Battle of Franklin.

"It was his first battle after he joined up in 1864," said Becker, 91, of Rockford, Mich. "And after the battle, he developed measles and he spent 18 days in a hospital."

Becker's father, Charles Conrad Becker, served in the 128th Indiana Infantry, and later was part of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea.

James Brown, 97, vented some mock indignation upon hearing the firebrand general's name.

"You mentioned about Sherman — I should shoot you!" joked Brown, whose father served in the 8th Georgia Infantry. "Sherman was a thorn in the side of everybody in the South."

Both Brown and Becker were born to elderly fathers — veterans in their 70's who survived well into the 20th Century.

Brown's father, James H. H. Brown of Oglethorpe County, Ga., was not at the Franklin battle, but fought at several others including Shiloh, Manassas and Gettysburg. A rifleman, he was also at Appomattox when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the war.

"He didn't talk too much about the Civil War, but he did tell to us boys what a hardship they had," said Brown, who was 11 when his father died. "No shoes, not enough food to eat. Toward the end it was pretty tough."

Becker said his father didn't often speak about the war either.

"He maybe talked to my older brothers more about it, but he mentioned various things," said Becker, a retired refrigeration engineer. "On nice days he'd lean his chair back and smoke his one cigar a day, and would tell us stories about the war."

Both men said they were pleased to be part of the ceremony for the unknown soldier.
"I thought it was a wonderful and marvelous affair," said Brown, a retired hotelier who now lives on Tellico Lake.

James Brown, left, and Harold Becker

Regardless of which army he fought with, this was an American soldier. Welcome home, brother and rest in peace.

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