I long to be in the Field again, doing my part to keep the old flag up, with all its stars. -Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 20th Maine Infantry
On a recent Saturday in late May, Boy Scout Troop 100 from Ballard gathered at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Seattle to clean up the grounds and grave markers. Having previously inquired who maintains this sacred site, a member of the Friends of the G.A.R. Cemetery invited me to the work party.
Most Seattleites know where Lakeview Cemetery is on Capitol Hill. It is a popular tourist attraction because it’s where martial arts legend Bruce Lee and his son Brandon are buried. Many don’t realize that just next door is the final resting place of 526 men and women, most of them Union veterans of the Civil War. You can see the G.A.R. Cemetery through the wire fence on the north side of Lakeview.
The Grand Army of the Republic, G.A.R., was an organization comprised of Union veterans, the last of whom died in 1956. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) website tells us more:
Men who had lived together, fought together, foraged together and survived, had developed an unique bond that could not be broken. As time went by the memories of the filthy and vile environment of camp life began to be remembered less harshly and eventually fondly. The horror and gore of battle lifted with the smoke and smell of burnt black powder and was replaced with the personal rain of tears for the departed comrades. Friendships forged in battle survived the separation and the warriors missed the warmth of trusting companionship that had asked only total and absolute commitment.
With that as background, groups of men began joining together — first for camaraderie and then for political power. Emerging most powerful among the various organizations would be the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which by 1890 would number 409,489 veterans of the “War of the Rebelion.”
Founded in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866 by Benjamin F. Stephenson, membership was limited to honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service who had served between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865.
At some point in the 1890s, a number of Union veterans who had moved to western Washington decided that they wanted to be buried together. Some of the first Jewish settlers in Seattle, Huldah and David Kaufman, donated the land for the cemetery in 1895. According to HistoryLink, guardians of our local history, the City of Seattle acquired the title to most of the land in 1923, but I’ve been told that the matter of who, exactly, owns what is still legally murky. Seattle Parks and the Friends of the G.A.R. Cemetery jointly maintain the property. HistoryLink also tells us that the Coast Artillery Corps used the site for an anti-aircraft search light battery and barracks in World War II.
On hand during Troop 100’s cleanup were some very knowledgeable experts on the cemetery and the Civil War like Lee Corbin, Jim Dimond, and reenactor Peter Coulton of SUVCW, who honored his ancestors with his Prussian blue uniform. Although it was on my mind the entire time, I failed to note the name of the female historian and genealogist who guided me around the cemetery and was brimming with amazing facts and anecdotes. I would like to be able to give proper credit if someone could remind me.
In this first photo is the resting place of a member of the U.S. Colored Troops– U.S.C.T., which you can see at the lower right. As many Americans know from the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, black soldiers served in separate units. The G.A.R. Cemetery did not make this distinction.
Here Troop 100, after planting flags at the central monument, begins to clean the multitude of grave markers. Note how they are all lying down but their shape and style indicates that they should be standing up. This was because of vandalism– there are those with no respect for the dead who find it entertaining to knock their headstones over. Unfortunately, this might have caused the wording to wear off of them more quickly. Many markers are in poor shape and barely readable. Some have already been replaced with newer styles. Per federal protocol, the old markers must be destroyed.
On the lower left you can see an authentic cast iron marker that was placed at many Union graves. Peter Coulton explained that you will rarely see these anymore because they are stolen, particularly by metal thieves. As we in the Puget Sound area know, there are plenty of drug-addicted opportunists who have no respect for the living or the dead.
On each of these freshly washed weathered stones you can see the unit the veteran served in and which state they’re from. The markers were not intended to be this dark but have aged as the decades have passed. The scouts placed an American flag at each grave to honor their service.
Clifford Hervey served in the Colored Infantry (C INF).
This man, whose name I’d have to look up in the directory because the stone’s so far gone, served in the Mexican-American War which began 14 years before the Civil War in 1846 (M.W. is Mexican War). This is when the U.S. gained the American Southwest. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this except for my nameless guide who seemed to know each soldier personally.
Here you can tell that this marker once stood upright on the square base, but like the others, it has either been broken off or laid down to keep that from happening.
Yes, there is someone buried here. According to my notes, this might have been John Ryan Smith, who died in Issaquah alone and forgotten. Evidently he had Civil War memorabilia in his house but no one’s been able to prove he was actually a veteran. His temporary marker disintegrated.
From 1921 to 1972, this is the style of marker that was used for veterans. Theron Lane’s family placed this in the 1940s.
The Friends placed Jacob Davidson’s marker in 2001. We speculated about what might have been intended for the top as there’s some significant blank space there.
Here’s an example of a marker in bad shape. I’m fairly certain I was told that the War Department issued this style prior to 1921. They were made of Vermont marble and came in several different widths. The 10″ width markers were ordered before 1906.
Despite the weathering, do we trust that it is who the marker says anyway? Evidently some of these veterans were originally buried across the way in Lakeview and the crew that transferred their remains to the G.A.R. Cemetery didn’t read or speak good English. It is said that a few of the coffins might have been mixed up in transit. Additionally, there are five “unknowns” in the cemetery although the Friends seem to know who they are.
Okay, this is a good story… These markers had just been cleaned by the Scouts but one clearly stood out from the rest. We discussed whether Griswold’s was made of a different type of stone and what sort of resilience it might have that the others don’t. I was quite intrigued by the condition of Griswold’s marker. It was dazzling.
So the next day, after a two-hour tour of the Kirkland Cemetery, where the Parks Department had marked veterans’ graves with flags and white crosses, I was talking to the historian conducting the tour about a cleaner he uses to brighten headstones. As I was told at the G.A.R. Cemetery, well-meaning people can do horrific damage to them by using the wrong kind of cleaner. Some people use whatever cleaner makes the marker the lightest and shiniest only to see it fall apart with a couple years. The National Parks Service even has a Best Practice Recommendations for Cleaning Government Issued Headstones.
When the historian, Matt McCauley, heard that I’d been at the G.A.R. Cemetery, he asked, “did you see Griswold?” I knew exactly who he was talking about. “Why yes,” I said. “There was a lot of discussion about why his marker looked so different than the others.” It turned out that Matt had used his special order, $70 a gallon cleaner from back east on Griswold’s marker. So Matt– it was you! We had a pretty good laugh about this. Check out Matt’s Kirkland Historical Foundation page and his fascinating book A Look To The Past: Kirkland: From wilderness to high-tech – Kirkland history in 50 vignettes.
This monument was placed by the Woman’s Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the G.A.R. organized in 1883.
Here lies Medal of Honor recipient Frank Bois. As you can see, he served on the ironclad U.S.S. Cincinnati. You can read about him and the 19 other Medal of Honor recipients living in Washington in the early 1900s here. At Vicksburg the Cincinnati had been shot to pieces but tenacious Quartermaster Bois stayed on the sinking, burning ship and nailed the American flag to the broken mast to keep the colors flying. Interestingly, the Cincinnati had been sunk and raised once before and would be raised again. Sadly, Bois later died in a Skid Row flophouse. (Side note: dish soap can’t be used on all types of markers, mild as it seems.)
The hardworking scouts of Troop 100 were very efficient at placing flags. They worked in teams, with one creating a hole in the ground and the other placing the flag. Their leaders obviously knew what they were doing and I was amazed at what they were able to get done in a relatively short amount of time.
More awesome and heartfelt work by Troop 100.
Seeing row upon row of clean markers with the stars and stripes above them created a warm and reverent ambiance.
Hundreds of graves received the royal treatment.
See the skinny marker on the lower right? There are many Union wives buried here too. The 75 veterans’ widows in the G.A.R. Cemetery are generally on the flanks but there are some buried with their husbands. While I don’t know if this particular stone is an original, I was told that the narrow ones were the original markers. Some are hopelessly worn. Some families bought civilian markers to replace the originals.
This appears to be one of the family-purchased, civilian style markers. It obviously used to stand upright.
A directory and pertinent information is contained in this kiosk at the entrance of the cemetery. It’s fascinating to read through the list and discover just how many states and units are represented. These veterans came to the Northwest from all over the country.
This quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is engraved on a large boulder facing the cemetery. It says, “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to the top.”
A job well done: Ballard Boy Scout Troop 100 poses for a group photo.
Here a couple is buried together. Fred evidently outlived Kate, which was not typical. Someone had already placed flowers on their grave.
This is the layout of the cemetery as posted in the kiosk. My mystery guide said it might have been designed to resemble a lodgeroom. Evidently there used to be a ceremonial stand here as well with a temporary rostrum on either side.
You’d think people would already know this. But the first time I visited the cemetery, someone was walking their dogs through it. Every time, I see people with dogs there, and it’s just not okay to see a dog urinating on someone’s grave. I love dogs dearly but it shows respect to steer them around graves instead of over them.
And would you believe that in the not too distant past the city was talking about turning this property into a dog park?! We do love our pooches here in Seattle but that would show total disrespect for these men and women and our past. Open space for dogs to play in is becoming increasingly rare in this region, but cemeteries should always be cemeteries and that should never change.
These young men knew how to fold a flag and I was thrilled to see their expertise.
While I recognized these cobblestones as vintage the first time I saw them, this time I learned that they were salvaged from Seattle city streets. The flagpole at the east end of the cemetery (not pictured) came from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and was dedicated on May 5th of that year. My tour guide was present at that event.
The finished product. Thank you Troop 100 and Friends! It was beautiful, and they planned to hold a formal ceremony there on Memorial Day proper.
The grounds are serene and beautiful. The irises reminded me of a Van Gogh painting.
Peter Coulton explained the authentic memorabilia in this case, which included a medal of General John A. Logan’s as well as his signature. Logan was a Commander-in-Chief of the G.A.R. who served in Congress and helped found Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day).
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, like many Americans, I have both Union and Confederate ancestors. At the time of this writing, more than a month after the G.A.R. Cemetery cleanup, anti-Confederate fervor is at a high not known in decades after the Charleston church shooting. I hesitate to include these photos because I’m concerned that some historically-ignorant or bigoted person will take it upon themselves to deface this piece of history. It will cost some wonderful staunchly non-racist women at the United Daughters of the Confederacy dearly out of their own pockets if something bad happens. This has already been vandalized in the past, but probably not for anti-Confederate reasons.
There were a number of issues driving the Civil War, namely the role of the federal government, states’ rights, preserving the Union, and economic issues. Ultimately the South believed it should have the right to break away. Slavery was certainly a prominent component of all of these issues, but many people didn’t take up arms to end or defend slavery. They asked why the federal government had the right to force them to be part of a union they felt they should be able to choose to secede from.
Similar questions are being asked in light of Supreme Court rulings this week both by those who agree and disagree with those outcomes– does the federal government have the right to dictate to the states? Or does the Constitution allow the states to make most decisions for themselves? In that context, it’s easier to understand why Southerners took up arms. Of course some were adamant about maintaining the ungodly institution of slavery, but it’s ignorant and offensive to suggest that all Confederates and/or Southerners were racist. My Confederate was multiracial and like many, a grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran. Many Southerners probably saw their cause as very similar to that which created our country in the first place.
Destroying Confederate memorials is only gasoline on the fire. Broad generalizations will only deepen the rifts vandals claim to be fighting against. While I absolutely condemn slavery and repeatedly remind people that the ground is level at the foot of the cross– no man is above another– I also choose to honor my Confederate ancestors and to preserve their history. We can show respect for the people who fought for what their home turf thought was right without agreeing with any erroneous ideologies. The Union and Confederate troops are part of our history and to erase the Confederacy from our memory will come to no good end. We must teach our children the whole story.
After my tour of the G.A.R. Cemetery one of the Friends was kind enough to guide me around Lakeview and show me the graves of Civil War veterans buried there. There is a large memorial to Confederate veterans placed by the UDC in 1926. The UDC came into being as an offshoot of the associations and auxiliaries that formed to take care of the Confederate veterans and perpetuate their memories. They have dedicated themselves to the preservation of many historical documents and places and educate others about our country.
In public school we are not necessarily taught that many Union and Confederate organizations like this came together by the early 20th century and worked together. Congress and certain presidents even asked them to collaborate. They did not ask the Southern organizations to disband, they respected that the various groups existed and asked them to unify on particular projects and causes. Should things be any different in a free country today?
More “you weren’t taught this in public school”: Robert E. Lee was an accomplished, longtime Army veteran who was offered one of the Union general positions but turned it down. His wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington and so the step-great-granddaughter of our first president. He and his wife inherited slaves and granted most if not all of them their freedom earlier in the war. There was much about the man to admire and the more I read of his writings, the less convinced I am that he was all for slavery. Like many Confederates, he asked, “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
These are some of the veterans who are buried near the monument. Like their Union counterparts, many of them went on to successful careers and helped others.
America is finally starting to say thank you for Vietnam veterans for their service even though many of us disagreed with American intervention in Vietnam. We are now wise enough to honor these men and women for their sacrifices independent of their orders. I similarly choose to show respect for Confederate veterans.
Some will be offended by this comparison as these were two very different wars; it’s not the same thing. My point is that we don’t have to agree with the cause to honor the individual. In both cases there were soldiers trying to do what was right and serving to the best of their ability whether they had a say in it or not.
I don’t know when these markers were created but the font used is beautiful. This veteran, Joseph Pritchett, lived a very long time– until the year World War II ended. He loved his country so much he offered to serve in World War II (his offer was declined as he was in his 90s). He wanted to live to see all the American soldiers come home and his last thoughts were of them. On his 94th birthday he said, “I don’t yield to anyone in my love, devotion and loyalty to America. But if feeling a tender sentiment for the flag of our lost cause makes me an unreconstructed rebel, I guess I am one.”
James Gilmer lived in Seattle 31 years and is one of many veterans who entered public service after the war. He was active in his church and in veterans affairs. The men who survived the war often lived 50 years or more afterwards; The War Between the States marked them forever but chronologically constituted just a few years of their youth.
Next to the monument is some intricate stonework belonging to the neighboring plot.
Farther back in the cemetery I was introduced to Gilbert Meem and his family. Meem was a Brigadier General from Virginia who resigned his commission in 1862, then went on to serve in the Virginia Legislature. After moving to Seattle in 1892 he was appointed postmaster by President Grover Cleveland. Gilbert’s peeking out from behind the tree.
Sympathies for the North and South still run strong in us Americans 150 years after the end of the conflict. It was hell on earth to have brother fighting against brother, sometimes literally, and the same political disagreements that influenced the Civil War are still very much alive today. I hope that, in memory of all of our people, we can remain united as a nation and true to our Constitution rather than allowing divisive forces to tear us apart. As Lincoln said, alluding to Matthew 12:25, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.
Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., An address delivered for Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic.
Lee Corbin provided these additional materials about the G.A.R. Cemetery:
MOHAI program (video)
KIRO podcast (audio)
He also pointed me to the well-researched related databases on Rootsweb (just one is featured here).
Apologies to those who provided the wonderful detail for this article for not posting it sooner. I appreciate your understanding.
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