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March to sea: Silent witness to Sherman
Local cemeteries
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“The paths of glory lead but to the grave” wrote the poet Thomas Gray. He was talking about the common folk residing forever in an 18th century English churchyard. A century later and an ocean away are the graves of local soldiers who fought in the Civil War. They are found behind the homes of long-time residents in Starrsville and Mansfield, for example, or in the Confederate Cemetery at Conyers and Davis Streets in Covington.

With the distance of time, visitors to these cemeteries notice how different the tombstones are from the flat stones of a modern cemetery. Noteworthy are the way the headstones look and the location of the graveyards.

“Locally-interred soldiers have special Confederate veteran’s headstones that are marked with the soldier’s regimental or other unit identification and insignia. Others, put in place by their families, have raised lettering in marble or engraved letters cut into granite. Some of these also identify the soldier’s rank or unit. These markings are still very legible today,” noted Ike Robertson, a descendent of several families living in Newton County during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Dr. George Lonberger knows these community cemeteries well. As an associate professor at Georgia Perimeter College’s (GPC) Newton campus, he has studied the family cemetery at Mt. Pleasant, the home of early-settler Solomon Graves, with the encouragement of its present owner and Newton County Historical Society member Ann Brewer.

“Most of the estates and farms near our campus have family cemeteries. Some are found near the home, which is the case at Mt. Pleasant,” Lonberger explained. If historical markers give us one way to map Sherman’s journey through Covington, then cemeteries of our community tell us another story about the conflict.

Ike Robertson added that “some headstones belong to veterans buried next to a local church, such as in Mansfield and Starrsville. Still other headstones are very visible in family plots along old State Route 229 in the Pine Grove Community near Newborn and along old State Route 213 in Starrsville. These cemeteries are only a few among a greater number in Newton County, as there were many Confederate veterans from here,” Robertson said.

Large and small, tall and short, there are remarkable-looking tombstones. In the family plots is a mixture of memorial designs. Some look like miniature Victorian mansions with lots of gingerbread of stone, not surprising for tombstones made in the 19th century.

Others have a sparer style with sadder stories of infant children dead before their time and young infantrymen wounded and lost on distant battlefields. GPC librarian Gregory Cates found this recollection of a soldier’s condition while reviewing websites on the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It comes from a Confederate nurse named Kate Cumming who recorded one man’s plight in her diary:

“August 14, 1864. A Lieutenant Sommerlin, from Covington, Georgia, is here, badly wounded; his wife, a lovely woman, is taking care of him. She told me she was in Covington when the raiders passed through there, and that they committed some terrible outrages; among others was the shooting of a Captain Daniel, a cousin of Miss W., of whom I had heard her often speak.

“He was in the state service, and the vandals made believe they thought him a bushwhacker. He has left a large family of motherless children to mourn for him. He was a man of a highly cultivated mind, and stood well in the estimation of all.”

A third style of gravestones without any engravings, stones weathered by decades of time, may be the graves of slaves and freed men, often found in clusters in the family cemeteries of the county.

“We’ve buried the same way for the last 200 years,” explained Johnny Waits of the Flat Rock archive at nearby Arabia Mountain, “head to the east and feet to the west.” A researcher in African-American gravesites, Waits said that a goal of the archives is to help local communities identify and preserve these tombstones.

Soon, my writing students will be learning more about the county’s gravesites. Ike Robertson will meet with them and provide tours of nearby cemeteries to help them understand the effect of the conflict on the local population. Many of these privately-owned cemeteries were directly in the path of the March to the Sea, though many of the deceased did not die during Sherman’s visit.

“Fortunately, there are soldiers buried in these cemeteries who were able to survive the many battles; and, for some, many months as prisoners of war. Eventually, they came home to endure the hardships of Reconstruction and help put their families’ lives back together,” Robertson added.

Kathleen DeMarco is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College.