In the Open: Thoughts from the Woods for Memorial Day
On a small hill across the road from my house there is a tiny family cemetery that seems out of place among the woods there. Amongst the black cherry, ash and elms, one of the stones stands conspicuously tall, the name on the bottom is Swearingen and it reads “In memory of James, Co F 63rd Regt OVI, Died at Memphis Tenn, Sept 24, 1863, aged 20 ys 11 ms 25 days.”
The wording “In memory” implies that the stone does not mark an actual grave, but is rather a cenotaph, a memorial for a person whose remains lie elsewhere.
A little bit of checking showed that the 63rd mustered in southeastern Ohio in the fall of 1861 and that James joined as a private on Dec. 3 that year and was later appointed as a sergeant. I could not find anything else about him, including his final resting place. Could his body be one of those many “Unknown” at the Memphis National Cemetery? Did he die of wounds suffered in a battle, or as a sick young man far away from his loving family?
At the time of his death James was younger than my daughters are now, and perhaps he and his family lived where our house is located now, and they chose that spot across the road for a small cemetery so they could look out across the valley and remember their son. Most likely they couldn’t afford to have his remains embalmed and returned home, so they had this stone made and erected in his memory.
Perhaps he too loved this little valley and wanted only to return home some day after the fighting was over, to resume his life. He never got that chance, like many he was taken far too young in a war not of his making, and all that remains of his existence are some notions in old rosters and fading words on a stone forgotten in the woods.
But I remember, and you are not forgotten.
The paragraphs above were my Facebook post during the 2014 Memorial Day weekend, and to be honest I wasn’t comfortable about sharing it. I have been cleaning up around this small cemetery for years now and it is something I usually do alone unless my wife, Mary, goes with me. I usually cut away the weeds, remove any fallen branches, put up a flag, and sometimes take a few small flowers. It always causes me to reflect on the meaning of true sacrifice. I feel like I owe it to Sgt. James Swearingen to keep his memory alive.
In short I had adopted a fallen hero.
Later on, during my research, I read a story about one young lady who lived in our little valley who was betrothed to a neighbor boy who went off to fight in the Civil War and never came home. Given that courtship presented a bigger logistical challenge 150 years ago than it does today, I assume there was a good chance it was Sgt. Swearingen, so undoubtedly he had been making plans for his life upon his return. She on the other hand continued on with her life, but I bet she always wondered about that neighbor boy who never returned. Perhaps she even visited the little cemetery from time to time, cleaned it up and put up some flowers.
I got a lot of positive feedback on that Facebook post; two of my friends said it inspired them to do the same, they went to a cemetery, found a grave of someone who had died in action, and placed flowers there. These graves are scattered throughout the county, their families perhaps long gone.
One of my friends posted this: “I found a random cemetery and decided to pick some flowers and put it on a soldiers grave. The only vet in the cemetery I could find was this young man who gave his life in Germany. Wasn’t expecting to see that written on his stone. Really put the day in perspective for me. Today I remember you Malcom C. Allen and the sacrifice you made. God bless you!”
Of course there is nothing stopping you from adopting a fallen hero during the Memorial Day weekend of boating, cookouts and sports.
At the risk of sounding preachy, I don’t think a lot of people know what Memorial Day really is, or they get confused between it and Veterans Day. In short, Memorial Day is a day set aside for honoring those service members who spent their lives and gave their last full measure of devotion for this country, while Veterans Day in November is a day set aside to honor all of those who served this country.
More importantly, remember that for some families every day is Memorial Day.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. His column, In the Open, generally appears every other weekend. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org