Kathy Dahl shows the location of the grave of Civil War veteran Taylor Bowen, an African American, July 12 in Wesleyan Cemetery in Cincinnati. Dahl, a retired naturalist with Cincinnati's parks department, has led history tours through the cemetery, and she is trying to get the VA to provide markers for the graves. (Patrick Reddy / The Cincinnati Enquirer via USA To)
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CINCINNATI — John Yates, an African-American soldier who enlisted in the Union Army at 13, lies in an unmarked grave in the 170-year-old Wesleyan Cemetery in Cincinnati.
Civil War Capt. William Peter Strickland, a chaplain for the 48th New York Infantry, rests in the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. Thousands of other veterans of long-ago wars share a similar fate.
And under a recent policy change by the Veterans Affairs Department, those buried in these graves will remain without official recognition of their service.
Supporters of historic cemeteries have launched a national campaign to change the policy, which says only next-of-kin may apply for markers and tombstones for veterans in unmarked graves. Several Northern Kentucky cemeteries founded before the Civil War also are backing the change.
Those working to preserve Civil War-era cemeteries and members of historical groups say they learned of the policy change, made in 2009 but not consistently enforced until last year, as they documented the gravesites of veterans in unmarked graves and applied for government-issued markers or tombstones. The markers, provided free to U.S. veterans, had been provided in the past but were turned down this time because the applicants weren’t direct descendants of the veterans.
“This is having an impact all across America,” said Jeff Richman, Green-Wood Cemetery’s historian and leader of a committee behind a national online petition to remedy the situation. Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 3,300 Civil War veterans. “If you look at the comments on our petition, you’ll see that people from all across the country have signed it.
“This (VA regulation) creates an impossible and unnecessary burden for groups seeking to honor veterans who served generations ago in conflicts like the Civil War, Spanish American War and even World War I.”
Rep. Steven Stivers, R-Ohio, has introduced legislation to change VA policy on who can request a marker.
In testimony before a House subcommittee April 10, Steve Muro, undersecretary for memorial affairs at the Veterans Affairs Department, acknowledged that the VA’s headstone and marker process appeared to be “too restrictive.” Muro said his agency was willing to revise the regulation and accept public comment, but he gave no timetable for doing so.
In an email response to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jo Schuda, a spokeswoman for the VA’s Office of Public Affairs, forwarded responses from the VA’s National Cemetery Administration that essentially said the same thing.
The “VA understands some people are concerned that the current definition of ‘applicant’ is too limiting,” the email said. “VA’s National Cemetery Administration is reviewing the regulation that defines eligible applicants,” and that agency will allow the public to offer input on proposed changes.
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration wrote that the current definition of “applicant” was intended to prevent “a person lacking familial relationship to the veteran (to) alter the veteran’s graveside in a manner the veteran’s family does not desire.”
When staff at Green-Wood Cemetery started researching how many military veterans were in unmarked graves in 2002, they expected to find 200, Richman said. Instead, they’ve found 5,000 veterans “of virtually every war that America’s been involved in” who were interred in unmarked graves, he said. So far, 1,950 of those have gotten granite VA gravestones, Richman said, and 50 have gotten bronzed plaques.
The “Mark Their Graves” petition asks that the VA make the new regulation inapplicable to veterans who served more than 62 years ago. The petition had collected 1,950 signatures as of Thursday.
Stivers’ proposed legislation stipulates that if next-of-kin can’t be found for a deceased veteran who served in the Armed Forces at least 62 years before the date on which the headstone or marker is requested, that others be allowed to apply for one.
Veterans' Unmarked Graves
Among those lobbying to change the policy are supporters of historic Linden Grove Cemetery in Covington, Ky., and Wesleyan Cemetery in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood — where family connections are no longer a viable option.
“Nobody wants to see veterans’ graves unmarked,” said Tom Honebrink, general manager of 142-year-old Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell. He added that Highland Cemetery has a soldier from every U.S. war buried there, including a Revolutionary War soldier. However, there are military graves there that remain unmarked.
Kathy Dahl, a retired naturalist with the Cincinnati Park Board, became interested in the issue after leading tours through Wesleyan Cemetery. She has been a leader in the ongoing fight by the city of Cincinnati and nearly a dozen historical groups and Masonic lodges to get VA markers for six African-American Civil War veterans who’ve been in unmarked graves for more than a century.
The six Union soldiers are buried near a large maple tree in the “Colored Grounds” section of Wesleyan Cemetery, Hamilton County’s oldest integrated cemetery. Their final resting places lie near a solitary marker for Daniel Robison, the only African-American Civil War veteran in that corner of the 170-year-old cemetery with a tombstone — albeit weathered — to mark his grave.
The Sons of the American Revolution also hopes to get a VA marker or gravestone to mark the Wesleyan Cemetery plot that serves as the resting place of a Revolutionary War soldier by the name of Andrew Cox, but members are waiting to see if policy changes.
During the past year, the VA has twice rejected the city of Cincinnati’s application for grave markers for the six Civil War veterans.
For six months, genealogists with the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and researchers with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center looked for descendants of six African-American Civil War veterans in unmarked graves, but could find next-of-kin for only two, Dahl said.
Local history lovers are hopeful they’ll get a marker for the two veterans with next-of-kin — Taylor Bowen and Henry Clay — but are doubtful about the other four. The National Cemetery Administration has indicated as much.
This is despite that fact that Sons of the Union Veterans of The Civil War and the Hamilton County Recorders office have provided certified Wesleyan Cemetery burial records for each. Also, 165 Masons representing 65 lodges have raised funds to pay for footers and installation of markers.
“Cincinnati’s unique because of the amount of organizations and the number of government officials and the top-ranked genealogy experts that we threw at this issue,” Dahl said. Despite all the research, “the VA’s still saying, ‘Not good enough.’
“So what chance does anyone else have?”