Civil War Veterans Get Gravestones in Green Lawn Cemetery

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A new gravestone for Civil War soldier Henry Collins. Collins' grave had been unmarked until the efforts by AmeriCorps.(Photo: Sam Hendren, WOSU News)
A new gravestone for Civil War soldier Henry Collins. Collins' grave had been unmarked until the efforts by AmeriCorps.(Photo: Sam Hendren, WOSU News)

For more than a century the body of Civil War veteran Henry Collins lay unknown, unmarked and forgotten in Columbus’ Green Lawn Cemetery.

But not any longer.

Workers and volunteers with AmeriCorps have made sure that Collins and two dozen other Civil War veterans now have gravestones.

Every year, on the weekend before Memorial Day, hundreds of volunteers fan out across Green Lawn Cemetery placing American flags next to the headstones of military veterans. They were there again this year.

But for the first time, there was a group of high school students who planted flags where there were seemingly only empty spaces.

AmeriCorps worker Amanda Nelson is inspired by a lifelong fascination with the Civil War. She was dismayed to learn that there were unmarked veterans’ graves at Green Lawn. Even though Section 51 has neatly placed row upon row of gravestones, there are gaps in the landscape, an indication that there’s a grave without an identifying marker.

“And this is a designated veterans section so for there to be so many unmarked graves in one of Green Lawn’s veterans’ sections to me is heartbreaking,” Nelson says.

But a quarter-mile north, in Section 33, Nelson says it’s worse.

“I see dips in the ground where you know bodies are. And this field has about 1200 bodies in it.

“Not all are veterans but for you to know that 1200 people are here, and maybe nine or ten stones, half of which are broken out here. It’s pretty depressing.”

So Nelson decided to begin identifying the veterans who lay beneath the soil. She got help from like-minded students at Centennial High School.

“It breaks your heart to see all of those people not recognized not even,” says volunteer Dan McClaskey. “The families probably don’t even know that they’re buried there and it’s just, it’s just terrible.

“We are trying to help represent soldiers – specifically African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War – and are not represented for their contribution to the war,” volunteers Zach Bailey says.

“They were here. They fought. They were a person. They died here.”

Students spent lunch hours and study hall periods searching the internet for military records of the deceased.

Zack Bailey found information about Henry Collins who enlisted in the Grand Army of the Republic at the age of 21.

“All the soldiers that we focused with were specifically U.S. Colored Troops,” Bailey says. “So the first name was Henry, the last name was Collins. And that’s all we really had, you know, born 1844. And it just pulls up an archive of hundreds maybe thousands of Henry Collins.”

The students sifted through record after record, slowly narrowing their searches. They might have only come up with bits and pieces of information, but that was enough for the government.

Two dozen marble headstones inscribed with the names of Civil War veterans were recently delivered to Green Lawn.

Amanda Nelson’s mother, Cathy Nelson, described the almost desolate Section 33 as a once-empty palette coming to life.

“It’s overwhelming to finally see these stones here. I mean this project has been going on for months and they’re physically here. It really is overwhelming to think that these men never had a stone and today they get one.”

The government supplied the stones but it takes an army of volunteers to install them. Dozens of people dig holes, pour gravel and slide the 200-pound markers into the earth. The grave of Henry Collins is the first to get a stone.

“It’s good to be a part of the team that put in the first stone,” says Amanda Nelson.

“It’s very satisfying. I think that Henry Collins is happy as well to be marked…finally.”

A ceremony dedicating the new headstones will be held at Green Lawn Cemetery next month.

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