Sunday, October 11, 2009

Unknown Civil War Soldier Memorialized in Franklin, TN

By Kevin Walters

FRANKLIN — 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.

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."

Clues to identity scarce

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 Minié 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."

Hundreds See Coffin

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.

- Published in The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessee, Saturday, October 10, 2009

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