Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering the Man on the Wrong Side of the Fence

Columbia, Tenn.
Nov 25, 1864

Mrs Lucy Brown

Dear Wife
I am well and hearty and feel as well satisfied as I expected. We got here on the morning of the 23rd and got to our regiment the 24th in the morning. This is a nice place for camping, it is high and dry, and very hilly. We had some very cold weather while we was on our way here. The people at Nashville said that it was as cold here as it had been for several years. I think from the appearance here that we may stay here for some time, but we can't tell for certain one day what we will do the next. I am getting anxious to hear from you and the children. I want you to write to me as soon as you get this letter and tell all my friends to write to me.
...There has been some skirmishing with our cavalry and the Rebels for the last 4 or 5 days but all is quiet today. The weather is warm and nice. One man made a bet of $100 the other day that the war would end in 3 months and offered to bet $900 more that it would end in 5 months. The opinion of some is that we will know by the first of January how it will be but we can't tell yet. I want you to keep in good spirits till I come home for I feel as though I will come out all right.... Now we are called to get our arms.
I have got back and had dinner. We can hear some cannons, they appear to be 2 or 3 miles off.

The words above are from the last letter James Henry Brown (the man in the photo) wrote to his wife, Lucy Ann Sarah. Within ten days, he was dead-- killed in the Battle of Franklin. The Battle of Franklin saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the American Civil War. In places bodies lay as they fell in tall piles. You couldn't walk without stepping on the dead. The ground was soaked deep red with blood.

James Henry's wife (seen to the left) didn't understand about war. All she knew was that she wanted her husband back home where he belonged. She insisted that his body be brought home for burial.

She didn't know-- and from my reading I think it would be safe to say that she didn't care-- about just exactly what that demand meant. Men buried in mass graves. Men with very little, if any, identification. By the time her request went through all the necessary channels, months had passed. The poor souls assigned to looking for James Henry's body had little more to go on than approximate height, Union soldier, red hair, full red beard. I'm sure that the second they found a body in a blue uniform that had red hair and a red beard, they stopped looking. And let's be honest: under the same circumstances, wouldn't you?

James Henry's body arrived home (south of Vandalia, Illinois) in June of 1865. The war was over. The Battle of Franklin had been fought over six long months ago. People gathered to bury him in the family cemetery, but before the coffin could be lowered into the ground, Lucy Ann Sarah made one more demand: "Open the coffin. I want to see my husband."

Many folks tried their best to get Lucy Ann Sarah (she was always called by all three names) to change her mind. If you can tell anything about her from that photo above, I think you can see that DETERMINATION should have been her middle name. She would not be denied. The coffin was opened, and Lucy Ann Sarah took a good long look. Most of the other folks didn't look at all. After several minutes had passed, she said, "That is not my husband. That is not James Henry." Her will was so powerful that whoever was in the coffin was not buried in the family cemetery.

Over one hundred years later, as a teenager, I joined many other family members down in the hills and hollers of southern Illinois. I couldn't take you there today if my life depended on it because the route consisted of little-traveled country roads. My great-grandfather was in the car with me, my grandparents and my mother. We were depending on his directions to get us to the old church and cemetery. All I can remember is that we had to turn left onto a little road when we got to Frogtown. (Frogtown was all of one old weathered wooden building that looked as though a stiff breeze would blow it into the next state. Truth be told, that old building is probably standing today and will stand long past my own death.)

The Brown family had gathered because the family church, old Center Church, was a hazard and was going to be torn down. My grandfather collected bells and went to the trouble of getting the old church bell down from the tower to be taken home to Moweaqua. The old family cemetery, located on some land out in the middle of fields and pastures, was overgrown. While some folks tended to the bell and the church, the rest of us got our gloves, hoes and rakes and started tending to the cemetery.

In the photos above, you can see old Center Church to the right, and the cemetery to the left. The tallest gravestone just happens to be Lucy Ann Sarah's, and you can see a field and an old barn right behind the graves.

In 1968 when all this clean-up was occurring, I was thirteen years old. I pulled weeds, hoed and raked just like everybody else, and I didn't get too bored because the all the names on the tombstones represented people who were related to me. At that stage in my life, I'd been in many old cemeteries, but this was the first time that all those dead folk were kin.

My interest began to wane just as everyone was finishing up and deciding which farm to go to for lunch. It was a typical hot, muggy, bug-laden Illinois summer day, and I looked over to the woods, knowing that a creek ran through the trees. I squeezed through the gaps in the barbed wire fence and started to head over to the woods when I saw a weathered marker lying on the ground on the pasture side of the fence that ran around the cemetery. I went on over to take a look.

The old pieces of wood had originally been in the shape of a cross. With the tip of a forefinger, I traced shallow carving in the crosspiece until I deciphered the marks: UNK. For some reason I knew not to make a big production out of this find, and I went over to my mother on the sly and told her what I'd found. That's when Mom told me about James Henry and Lucy Ann Sarah declaring that the body they'd shipped from Tennessee wasn't her husband. "You've found where they buried the man she rejected," Mom said.

Mom's attention was almost immediately claimed by someone else. I picked up a rake and a hoe and climbed back through the fence. I put on my thick leather gloves and cleaned up the afterthought of a grave that Lucy Ann Sarah gave to "Unknown". I found some bits of wire and fixed the cross and set it straight in the ground where it should be. I looked into the cemetery proper, at all the graves decorated with stone markers and flowers. I looked down at this grave scratched out in the dirt of a pasture where any of the livestock could stand on it.

I sat down by the grave and put my hand on the cross and felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow. "I don't know who you are, mister, but you deserve respect just like anyone else who's buried here. My family didn't do right by you, and I apologize for that."

To this day when Memorial Day rolls around, the first person I think of is a lonely man buried on the wrong side of a fence that surrounds an old family cemetery. He fought and died for his country. He is deserving of respect.


  1. A fascinating story, and it is great that you got the chance to apologize. A good deed.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. Very nice post..enjoyed reading it. It truly brings to mind the spirit of Memorial Day..which you seem to embody.

  3. Such a sad story; I'm glad you did the right thing. Lucy Ann Sarah was a fighter, wasn't she? Quite a character but it's a shame she had the stranger buried outside the fence.

  4. What a wonderful family story to share. I really enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing with us and for remembering the unknown soldier we all should take the time to remember.

  5. Thank you for sharing such a personal family story.

  6. Julie-- Thanks!

    Uriah-- It may have been a good deed, but I also think I was being a melodramatic teenager, too. :)

    Richele-- Thank you, and thanks for stopping by!

    Barbara-- There was enough room in that cemetery to have buried him in a corner of it. I'm thinking of writing another post on Lucy Ann Sarah. Lots happened to her, and stories swirl around her.

    Nicola-- I'm glad you liked it.

    Ryan-- You're welcome.

  7. What a fascinating and dramatic story!

  8. Dorte-- I'm glad you liked it. My family is full of characters, most of whom are very stubborn and independent.

  9. What a fascinating story! What a great way to remember an unknown soldier. I emailed my Grandparents yesterday and thanked my Grandpa for serving and told them I had my Grandma's brother in mind (he also fought in WWII). I then emailed a friend of mine whose son was KIA this past October. I'm so glad we have a day set aside to remember those who fight for us.

  10. Oh my gosh - I just had to tell you that I got teary eyed at the end there. I would say your family - i.e. you - did eventually do right by Mr. UNK. You obviously come from a family filled with rich stories and you are great at telling them here - I hope you share more of them.

  11. Kris-- I'm glad that some of us remember what the day is truly for.

    Molly-- I am thinking of another post that will shed more light on Lucy Ann Sarah. She might come back to haunt me though. I'm glad you liked my family tale. :)


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