Confederate dead rest beneath magnolias

By Kyle Martin
Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2011

War heroes are buried there, such as John Martin, who survived a tomahawk blow to the head during the Cherokee War of 1755 and went on to serve through the Revolutionary War.

Nearby is the mausoleum of Wylly Barron, which was built 24 years before his death as protection from a dying gambler’s curse.

For Ron Udell, it’s not one grave that interests him, though, but the more than 700 graves of Confederate soldiers buried in this cemetery on the outskirts of downtown Augusta.

"To take care of these graves for me is more like an honor," said Udell, the camp commander of Augusta’s Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 158. "We try to do the very best we possibly can for them."

Most of the Confederate graves are concentrated in a special section at the rear of the cemetery. Dozens of white headstones are bordered by a bubbling white-rimmed fountain and a platform topped with marble benches.

A few of Magnolia’s soldiers, such as Sgt. P.O. Hansom, died in Civil War battles such as Gettysburg. A majority probably died from the usual killers of 19th century soldiers, however: disease and infection.

Some of their stories are known by the descendants who have traced their ancestors through census rolls and service records. Others are a mystery, but that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of caring for the grave, Udell said.

"Some of these fellows went off to war and their family doesn’t even know they’re buried here," he said.

Augusta’s original public graveyard, Magnolia started with a land purchase in 1817. Its first burial was in 1818, a signal of relief for other private cemeteries that were rapidly filling up, such as the one at St. Paul’s Church on the riverfront. The cemetery was later expanded to its current 60 acres with a land donation by Nicholas de L’Aigle.

In the 1860s, Magnolia Cemetery’s location along Second Street placed it on the outskirts of town. As such, Augustans incorporated the cemetery’s brick wall into its perimeter defenses in anticipation of Gen. William T. Sherman’s attack. There are still visible signs along the wall where the bricks were removed for cannon placements.

The section where about 330 Confederate soldiers are buried — along with the war’s survivors and a handful of Union soldiers — was dedicated for that purpose in 1924.

Most of the cemetery’s residents died in one of Augusta’s eight military hospitals; each Confederate state and branch of service is represented in the square.

Roughly 400 other Confederate soldiers and noteworthy people are buried in other sections of the cemetery, including Nathaniel Savage Crowell, the medical director of the Confederate Army, and John Troup Shewmake, a member of the Confederate Congress.

There is a section dedicated to 183 Union prisoners of war who died in the Augusta area. Most were reinterred at the National Cemetery in Marietta, Ga., but there are still 15 headstones dedicated to federal soldiers. Magnolia also claims seven Confederate generals, including two born in Augusta and one from Washington.

Maintaining the Confederate Square is a work in progress; the elements are the primary enemy of the decades-old headstones. Fallen leaves from the dozens of magnolia trees on the property pile up on the roads in waist-high drifts. Heavy branches fall and crack headstones or, in some cases, the trees fall and cause damage.

In one case, the weight of a fallen tree pushed a headstone all the way into the ground.

"We were cleaning up and thought, ‘Shouldn’t there be a headstone here?’ " Udell recalled with a chuckle. "There was about an inch (of headstone) poking out of the ground."

Though the city does maintain the property, the local Sons of Confederate Veterans say they want this part of the cemetery to stand out for visitors.

Henry Gilmer’s ancestors are not buried at Magnolia, but his contributions are done in honor of all Civil War soldiers. "I’m helping take care of my plot like I would my own family," he said.

The Augusta Chronicle ©2011.

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