Washing Angel's Wings

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

On Veteran's Day we honor the men and women who served this country in the armed forces of our nation. We have parades with young active duty troops marching in their uniforms. You will find the old veterans in the crowd watching. More and more veterans are wearing distinctive clothing, hats and badges & pins of rank out in public. They are announcing to the country that they served in the military and want the public to know it.

The main point of Veteran's Day is to thank and actively remember our living veterans, these defenders of our freedom who served and then came home to get on with their lives. Memorial Day is for the defenders who did not come home to marry, to build a life or enjoy the freedom they help preserved.

There are over twelve different towns and cities in this country that claim title to the location where Memorial Day started. While stationed in Columbus, Mississippi I was informed that the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus was the true starting place for the annual, regular recognition of our dead soldiers of the Civil War. In 1866 the local southern women were placing flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers who died at the Battle of Shiloh. They noticed the graves of Union dead were overgrown with weeds and generally neglected. Enemies or not, these dead men were the loved ones of American families, who like the Confederate dead, had given their lives for a cause they believed in. These grieving southern women cleared the graves, of perhaps the very men who killed their family members, then place flowers on those Union graves.

Their unbiased efforts created the tradition of "Decoration Day" and this eventually melted into the national day of remembrance for our killed in action that became Memorial Day. At the end of the Civil War the Union dead were removed from their first burial sites and re-interred at the many national cemeteries that were established. There are no Union dead buried at Friendship Cemetery, at least none that are known. There are 2194 listed Confederate dead in that cemetery but only 345 soldiers and a female army nurse have names and units on the grave markers. The remaining 1848 headstones are marked "Unknown Confederate Dead."

In battle, Confederate and Union troops fell and died next to each other and then were buried in haste. If the truth were known I would suggest that Union dead are still at Friendship Cemetery. I used to walk the cemetery looking for markers that had some of my different family surnames on them.

In Mississippi the green moss grows on the headstones and can eventually completely obscure the names. I contacted a National Cemetery and spoke to a caretaker about how to clean the markers. Using this information I walked the rows of headstones with my buckets of water and scrub brushes and I cleaned the markers of fallen Confederates that I shared surnames with. There was no way I could clean them all. I found a marked headstone of a soldier from the 37th Alabama surrounded by hundreds of "Unknown" markers. It was completely obscured, but by the end of that visit I had it ready.

Over the course of many trips to Friendship Cemetery I cleaned the "Unknown" markers around that lone marked headstone. "Friendship" is not a military cemetery, it was established in 1849 and is still being used.

Besides the military markers, many of the pre-1900 headstones are extremely interesting. There are a number of angels standing on or near headstones. If the angels are weeping it usually means a child is buried there. The angels have the same moss problem. Because of this I also found myself washing angel's wings at "Friendship."

It has been over five years and I am sure the moss is starting to win the battle again. There are thousands of cemeteries in this country that have those very distinctive military headstones. There is a tradition of placing American flags at these graves on Memorial Day. I believe we need to broaden that tradition and provide a little gentle care, cleaning and even maintenance for these last reminders, of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. Local cemeteries do not have the money or manpower to keep these fallen hero's final markers cared for in the manner they deserve. Honor a veteran this year and every year by tending to a headstone. We buried another veteran today.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.