Filed under: News
On July 21 of this year, members from around Ohio gathered at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus for a Civil War gravestone dedication and memorial service. Amanda Nelson, a member of the Ohio History Service Corps, and this year’s Central Ohio Coordinator for the Civil War 150 Leadership Corps, envisioned and spearheaded the event. “There was so much to get done and prepare for, but it was the final piece to my project’s puzzle. And I am relieved everything turned out so well.” When Nelson first began her service in October of 2011, she knew immediately what she wanted to do. Her main objective was to focus on the histories of Ohioans during the Civil War, particularly the soldiers, both black and white, and highlight their legacies through commemorative programming.
In December, Nelson visited Green Lawn Cemetery, located in Southwest Columbus, for the Wreaths Across America Ceremony. Upon the ceremony’s conclusion, she met two members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Jonathan Davis and Steve Ball, who walked her to a section of Green Lawn known as “33.” All that appeared in section 33 were a handful of stones, some of which were worn or broken. What she thought looked like an empty field, turned out to be a site of over 1,200 buried bodies. Some of which, she learned, were Civil War veterans. The news was shocking. As she surveyed the section, and gingerly stepped over the dips in the ground where she knew bodies were, she began to wonder who these veterans were. And out of that curiosity came the “Green Lawn Civil War Project.”
While she had a set plan in place, the task of investigating these soldiers was not easy. So, she called on the help of Jonathan Davis from the SUVCW who had originally introduced her to the section. He provided her with an old 1930s WPA map of Section 33, and also provided her with a map of section 51, a designated veterans section of Green Lawn. Davis explained that more graves were unmarked in 51, so Nelson decided to include 51 in her efforts. After she located and gathered the names of the men she was planning to research from the WPA maps, she sought out help from some high school students from Centennial, located in Northwest Columbus. With the help of Nancy Clendenen, the librarian at the school and a leader of special projects, she was able to gather 8 enthused students who were willing to give their time to the project. They met for the first time in January when Nelson presented the plans for the project and what their involvement would be. Immediately Nelson, and her team of students got to work researching these men, plugging their names into ancestry.com, and even took a trip to the Ohio Historical Society, where Nelson serves, to work in the archives and microfilm room.
With the help of her student volunteers, Nelson was able to research the soldiers, locate their grave registration cards, birth and death dates, family history, etc. Once all the information was gathered, Nelson and the students filled out 26 applications for new military headstones. The applications, made available by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, had to be 100% correct. The information the students found on each veteran, accompanied the applications, which were all sent out in early March. In late March / early April, the Nelson and her researches were notified that all but one headstone had been approved. They were so relieved, but Nelson was disappointed that one stone was left out, so she contacted the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission who agreed to place a private marker for the soldier. Now that she had been notified about the applications, the next part in the process was to wait patiently for the stones to be received. By early June, all but two had arrived, and on June 15, Nelson held an installation.
With each stone weighing around 230 pounds, she put out the call for volunteers as she knew placing the stones properly would be a daunting task. About 25 people from the outside community, whose ages ranged from 8 to 60, contacted Nelson to sign up. And with their help, and the help of her student volunteers, fellow AmeriCorps members, Jonathan Davis, some staff from Home Depot, and her mentor Paul LaRue (member of the Ohio Civil War 150 Advisory Committee), Nelson was able to complete the installation within two hours – an undertaking she thought would take two days. Nelson later remarked, “Seeing those new marble stones in the ground for the first time was overwhelming. It was like a dream. There were some days when we thought it would never happen. But to finally see those stones in the ground was breathtaking. Someone now knows who those soldiers are.” After the installation was complete, the last and final step for Nelson was planning the gravestone dedication and memorial service.
When thinking about the most effective way to honor the soldiers Nelson had researched since January, she kept returning to the idea of holding a military funeral service, a provision she knew some of the men had never received. She made contact with Sergeant Major Rebecca Herzog from the Ohio Army National Guard who immediately offered her support and services. Nelson, then contacted the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission, who she had been in correspondence with since her project’s inception. Larry W. Roberts, President of the Commission, committed to give remarks at the program. As she began to line up speakers, she worked with Green Lawn’s former General Manager, Linda Burkey to select the location of the program, which would turn out to be Sections 33 and 51. As Nelson continued her program plans, she focused on highlighting the student volunteers who dedicated their time to the project. “So many people were involved in this and I wanted to make sure they were all featured.”
Before anyone knew it, Military Appreciation Day had finally arrived. The day was met with ‘picture perfect’ weather–some of the best the summer had seen. As the tent and chairs were set up in Green Lawn’s Section 33, people began to gather. Promptly at 10am, the Ohio Army National Guard’s Color Guard marched in bearing the colors and stood behind the podium, with the Rifle Party stationed behind them.
The program began with a prayer from Reverend Leon M. Troy, Sr., Pastor Emeritus of Second Baptist Church. Following the prayer was Linda Burkey, who welcomed everyone to Green Lawn and provided guests with a general history of the cemetery. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited following Burkey, then Nelson took the podium. She spoke of the project’s origins and what inspired her to do this type of work. She credited all those involved in the efforts and explained why more projects like hers need to surface.
Following Nelson was Kelly Selby, a recent addition to the Ohio Civil War 150 Advisory Committee. She spoke on behalf of the committee and explained why this research is important. She provided the attendees with some background information on a few of the soldiers being honored, and remarked that there is still more work to be done. Commissioner Larry Roberts then spoke, and his words were moving, to say the least. He talked about his recent family history discovery; he had just learned that one of his ancestors fought in a colored regiment during the Civil War. As tears rolled down his face, he shared how overcome he was with the project and how proud he was to be there. Nelson described his remarks as “emotional” and “unforgettable.” She said, “That is one of the moments from the program I will remember for the rest of my life. I think after he finished speaking, the meaning of why we were holding the program sunk in for a lot of people.” Following Roberts’ impactful words, was Todd Kleismet from the Ohio Historical Society. As Director of Government and Community Relations, he talked about how the project had impacted the local community and explained the other events happening during Military Appreciation Day.
After Kleismet ended his remarks, three of Nelson’s student volunteers took the podium. Austin Carlier, Robbie Whitehead, and Corey Bell gave reflections on their involvement with the project and what it meant to them. When talking about including her students in the program, Nelson said, “Their faithfulness to this endeavor deserved to be recognized, so I wanted them to explain what this work represented for them.” Carlier mentioned how proud he was of the soldiers and what they had done for the country. Whitehead talked about his plans to go into the Marine Corps and how he hopes that all current and future veterans, like him, can be honored in this way. Bell spoke to the legacy of the project and how he hopes his work has started the process to revitalize other cemeteries. While each reflection was different, they were equally powerful. It was clear to see why they had done such great work on the project; they were truly invested in it. A poem entitled Freedom was then read, followed by the first Three Round Volley Salute and the playing of Taps.
As the program in 33 concluded, a procession headed by the Color Guard, led people to section 51, where seven colored soldiers were being honored. The second part of the commemoration opened with the words of Paul LaRue, high school teacher and Ohio Civil War 150 Advisory Committee Member, who spoke to his personal connection to the project. 2012 marked his tenth year of doing similar cemetery research and restoration work with his high school students. Following LaRue were two more of Nelson’s high school students, Dan McClaskey and Zack Bailey, who read the famous Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, The Colored Soldiers. After the poem was read, the second round of shots were fired and Taps echoed through the air once again. Before the program concluded, the Folding of the Flag took place, which was presented to Nelson in honor of the soldiers she worked so hard to recognize. After Nelson received the flag, Rev. Troy, Sr. graced the crowd once again to give a closing prayer.
The “Ohio’s Boys in Blue” program and entire Military Appreciation Day were huge successes. Nelson was so honored that her program could serve as the anchor event for the day. “It really set the tone,” she said. “The morning at Green Lawn gave people the chance to remember the sacrifices these men made and how they impacted Ohio. And the afternoon at the history center provided people the opportunity to engage with reenactors and displays about why remembering these soldiers is significant. The whole day was impactful.” While Nelson plans to continue her research on unmarked soldiers buried in Green Lawn and other local cemeteries, she is now facing some obstacles. Currently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is enforcing a 2009 law that states you must either be next of kin, a representative on behalf of a descendant, or a representative on behalf of next of kin, to apply and receive a military headstone. Future projects for Nelson are on hold at the moment until this law can somehow be revised, but she is not discouraged. “If I don’t do it, who will? I feel like I have an obligation to do this work; to inspire others to get involved; to tell these stories; to honor these lives.”
For more information about this project, please contact Amanda Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.