Friday, September 16, 2011

Grave matters

I finally fulfilled a longtime dream of visiting a particular cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.

Before you think I am off my rocker, recall that I love family history and have done extensive research on both my father's side and my mother's side. (If you don't recall that, then please take it on faith -- I do and I have.) Cemeteries are a significant source of family history.

For many years I have wanted to visit the family graves in Fairmount Cemetery. Unfortunately, it isn't the safest place in the world. The Central Ave. side of the cemetery is pretty much okay, as is Central Ave. itself. But the South Orange Ave. side of the cemetery is, apparently, a thief's paradise. As is South Orange Ave. itself at that end of the city. And, of course, it was the South Orange Ave. side of the cemetery that I was going to be needing.  So today I finally had the opportunity -- after some 20 years of waiting -- to drive up there, get a staff escort, and take photographs of the family graves.

I die happy.

Well, that's an exaggeration, but it really has helped my research by confirming many facts and giving me a couple new clues.

All but one of the graves were on my mother's side of the family.

This is the grave of my great-great grandmother.

See the birth year of 1840? Ha! 1833 is more like it. Mary Ann made herself younger by a few years with each census that was taken -- she claimed to be 78 years old in the 1920 census. By the time she died, her children weren't sure what year she'd been born. So they made a guess.


In reality, she was 90 when she died. I have other documentation to prove it.

There is one lone grave at Fairmount that is from my dad's side of my family -- he was my great-great grandfather and he is buried in the Soldiers' Plot (row on row of government-issued headstones).

He was a Civil War veteran who served for three years, coming home from the War in 1864 to find his wife had died some eight months earlier, leaving their young son motherless. Within 10 years, he married a second time and fathered two children in that relationship, but the marriage ended in divorce and those children were lost to the family after that.

Wounded four times during the war and plagued with dysentery, he apparently became an alcoholic. His wounds, of course, went with him for the rest of his life, along with kidney disease and heart trouble. He bounced in and out of the NJ Veteran's home three times in the first decade of the 1900s, finally passing away in January of 1910 at the Little Sisters of the Poor charity home in Newark. The U.S. Government buried him.

It's a sad tale, but when I talked about this man's checkered existence with the historian at the cemetery, he was not at all surprised at how things had turned out. The 54th Ohio fought at Shiloh, at Gettysburg and at other incredibly bloody battles. That my great-great grandfather lived through it all is a miracle in itself.

They misspelled his last name on the headstone, although it is spelled correctly in the burial records held by the cemetery association. No dates, but that's okay -- I already know them.

I feel sorry for this man. I wonder what kind of temperament he had naturally and how it was changed by his experiences in the Civil War (did I mention that he was also captured at one point and then escaped about two weeks later?)  I think about how his son, my great-grandfather, must have wondered about his father. It seems, from the documentation that I've seen, that theirs was never a close relationship. I feel bad about that too -- my great-grandfather lost his mother when he was less than three years old and then grew up with a father who retained terrible injuries and problems from his service to our country.

Despite the desolate childhood that he endured, my great-grandfather was remembered fondly by his grandchildren (my father among them), so he must have been one of those people who could "re-write the script," as it were.  Good for him!

I love a cemetery on a beautiful, Fall day -- especially when there are family history treasures to be discovered.

- Catherine

1 comment:

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Whenever we can get away, we'll be doing the same thing - and possibly at some of the same cemeteries! The more of his ancestry Larry traces, the more New Jersey lines come up, and even I seem to have a few NJ connections. Larry's even related to the Walls of Wall. It's awesome to find your forebears and i love the story of your great great grandmother changing her birth year. My grandmother did the same thing, marked it out in the family Bible(!)

The historian you talked with has a good perspective on your great great grandfather. Those men had a horrible experience, and no one knew anything about PTSD then. He wasn't alone in his problems.