GAR monument for the unknown dead in Green Grove Cemetery: 2nd Part of the talk given by David Ruell on Ashland’s war memorials for Ashland Historical Society program on October 12, 2011
This is a granite monument erected by the Grand Army of the Republic OW Keyes Post to the unknown dead of the Civil War. It is tall and narrow with a very simple inscription “GAR / 61-65 / Unknown”.
There was a very high death rate in the Civil War, as the largest armies that had been seen to that date fought. 2% of the nation’s population died in the struggle. The armies were not equipped to deal with the number of dead, and large numbers of dead soldiers were not identified. There were no official identification tags. Sometimes soldiers pinned paper notes to their clothes and private manufacturers sold identification tags. But you have to be very pessimistic to mark your own body. There were no fingerprints or other forensic techniques for identifying the dead. Unless the body was found and the grave marked by other soldiers from the same unit, there was a good chance that the body was never identified and was buried in an unmarked grave. Over 40% of dead Union soldiers were buried as unknowns. An even higher percentage of Confederate soldiers were placed in unknown graves. So, it is estimated that about half of the Civil War dead lies in unmarked graves.
That seems to be about the proportion in Ashland. At the dedication of the monument, the speaker Warden A Curtis spoke of eleven unknown dead from Ashland, which is about half the number of dead from the town. His number may not be correct as he named Captain Orlando W. Keyes as one of the unknown, but other sources tell us that Capt. Keyes’s body was found, returned to Ashland for a funeral at St. Marks Church, and buried in Green Grove Cemetery. His name is on the family monument and there is a stone in the family plot with his initials on it.
Some poignant stories are told of Ashland’s unknown dead.
Samuel S. Plaisted of 6th NH infantry drowned when the steamer West Point, carrying sick and wounded soldiers, collided with another steamer in the Potomac in 1862 and sank. There were two small boats, one of which the crew took, leaving one boat for over 200 soldiers, most of them sick. 120, including Samuel Plaisted, drowned.
Sergeant George K. Hughes of 12th NH Infantry was killed by what we would call today “friendly fire”. An artillery unit was firing over his unit’s position, but one of their shells hit a tree and exploded. Sergeant Hughes was hit by a piece of the shell and died in a few moments.
Sergeant Samuel Cheney of the 12th NH Infantry fell in an unsuccessful charge
on the Confederate lines at the battle of Cold Harbor. For three nights, his brother Daniel went out between the lines in the dark to look for him. Whenever he found a body that might be Samuel, he would carefully strike and conceal a match to look at his face, because the Confederate pickets would fire at any Union soldier out there. But he never found his brother and Samuel’s body was never identified. He could be one of 889 unknown Union soldiers buried in the Cold Harbor National Cemetery.
Memorial Day was often referred to as Decoration Day, as the focus of the holiday when first established in 1868 was to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. The decoration of graves was a major part of the Memorial Day program in Ashland in the 19th century and early 20th century. Wreaths were made and carried in possession to the cemetery, then placed on the graves, sometimes all simultaneously on a signal. That practice is last mentioned in 1920, but the Legion still decorates graves with flags for the holiday.
So, how do you remember the unknown dead, buried hundreds of miles away in unknown graves?
In 1882 the GAR began a discussion with the Green Grove Cemetery trustees about obtaining a lot. In April of 1883, the cemetery trustees gave a lot to be known as the Soldiers Lot to the GAR post, actually four regular lots that make a large square 40 feet per side. The lease is dated May 29 1883 and says that the lot was given “in consideration of Patriotism”.
This lot has since been used for four burials, one Civil War soldier who died in 1916 and three World War 2 veterans, but its initial use was for the unknown dead. The newspaper report on the 1883 Memorial Day celebration notes that “for several days preceding Decoration Day, a number of GAR boys could be seen beautifying and making arrangements in and around the lot for carrying forward the work of decoration for the unknown dead”. On the holiday, the parade was formed at the Baptist Church, marched to the town hall for exercises there, then marched to the cemetery to the Soldiers Lot. From there details were sent out to each grave to be decorated and on a bugle call, all the graves were decorated at once, then everyone returned to the soldiers lot “where services for the decoration of the unknown dead were carried forward” including an address, prayers and an offering of flowers. Then everyone marched back to church and “a Collation” for the paraders.
As I noted earlier, in 1898 the Women’s Relief Corps was planning to raise money for a monument on the Soldiers Lot in the cemetery but that ended up elsewhere.
In 1911, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, this monument was erected on the Soldiers’ lot. We don’t know many details about its erection. May 27, 1911, Ashland Citizen says “a granite monument has recently been erected in Green Grove Cemetery by the members of OW Keyes Post No 35 GAR and will be unveiled and dedicated” on Memorial Day. The GAR Post Records give no more details, with no mention of it before that Memorial Day, and then refers only to “the dedication of the granite monument recently erected by the comrades of the post”. So I don’t know who made it, how much it cost, and how the money was raised.
On that 1911 Memorial Day, the GAR assembled at their hall, marched to the town hall, which was filled with people for the occasion, and listened to two speeches, one on the unknown dead by journalist and author Warden A. Curtis whose speech was published in the newspaper, and is actually a pretty good oration. He said that “the GAR and the Women s Relief Corps in generous and loving thought of those whose last resting place will not be visited in commemoration today, here in the semi-centennial year of the war, is dedicating a monument to their memory. Their graves will not be visited but we can speak the names of those who went out from Ashland and whose graves are unknown.” He briefly gave their histories and said “These are the men in whose memory the monument is dedicated today, men who have had no monument, most of them not even a grave. And yet for all that, they have had their monument, the republic they helped to save.” After speeches, the GAR paraded behind a band to the cemetery where the soldiers’ graves were decorated, and the monument was unveiled by the grandchildren of GAR members Spaulding and Cheney and “dedicated to the memory of soldiers who rest in unknown graves”.