Memorial Day 2013

Barton Mitchell's Headstone at Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Barton Mitchell’s Headstone at Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I must admit that up until today, I’ve never participated in any Memorial Day services. That has changed, thankfully. As mentioned in my last post, I met up with Wisconsin history teacher Chris Lese, several of his co-workers, and about a dozen of his students at the Hartsville Baptist Cemetery in Hartsville, Indiana, for a brief Memorial Day ceremony. I met Chris a few months ago while at the Gettysburg conference back in March, and his talent for teaching history is truly inspiring. He has arranged for his group to take a nine day trek around the country following the paths of two Indiana soldiers during the Civil War. The group started here in Indiana, but are on their way to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and will be visiting the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields later in their trip.

Hartsville is a very small town, numbering less than 400 people. It is in Southern Indiana and very close to the city of Columbus, which is the birthplace of racecar driver Tony Stewart and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, among other notable people. This was my first time there. While I’m not really cut out for the small-town lifestyle, I thought the area was nice. Anyway, Hartsville was a good place to hold this ceremony because it was the final town in which Union veteran Barton Mitchell lived. Mitchell is famously known as the soldier who found Special Order 191, a series of instructions written by Confederate General Robert E. Lee that were rolled up into three cigars (notice the replica Chris’s students placed on Mitchell’s headstone above) and accidentally discarded on the ground. The orders were eventually sent to General George McClellan and played a role in the Union military’s strategic planning at the Battle of Antietam. The story has been published in a million books, I’m sure, but none do it better than Bruce Catton’s fine work Mr. Lincoln’s Army, in my opinion.

The ceremony was very nice and the turnout was impressive. I’d estimate 50 people were there. A few speeches and prayers were made at the beginning, followed by a recreation of a Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Day ceremony that included the use of a GAR Memorial day booklet from 1895. Towards the end “Taps” was played, followed by a decoration of Mitchell’s grave, as seen above.

When I first arrived in Hartsville, I was given directions to the wrong cemetery. Nonetheless, Hartsville College Cemetery is beautiful.

Hartsville College Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Hartsville College Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Several volunteers graciously donated their time to help during the ceremony.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

There are other Civil War soldiers at the cemetery whose graves were decorated as well. Lafayette Trisler was 18 years old when he enlisted in the 33rd Indiana Infantry in 1862. Tragically, he died during the war on July 21, 1863. The National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors database states that the 33rd was in Middle Tennessee or Tullhoma from June 23-July 7. They then moved to Guy’s Gap in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, shortly thereafter. Since his regiment wasn’t in battle, I’d assume Trisler died either from disease or a previously acquired battle wound.

The Headstone of Lafayette Trisler. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The Headstone of Lafayette Trisler. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I am glad that we as nation continue to observe Memorial Day, but I’ll be even happier when we no longer have to bury soldiers like Lafayette Trisler into the ground at such a young age. It would be great if someday we could observe Memorial Day and say something along the lines of this:

“We are here to honor those who fought and died for our country from 1775-2013. Their sacrifices have given us a loving, peaceful nation today that is no longer in the throes of war and a shining example to the rest of the world. For that, we give our dead our eternal gratitude.”

I can dream.


5 thoughts on “Memorial Day 2013

  1. I’m a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and lead a tour that includes the Chicago Cultural Center which has a hall dedicated to the G.A.R. The Cultural Center has a deep history with the GAR. One fellow docent told me that all military who served in the “Civil War” eventually were recognized as members of the GAR. Another docent was appalled at this inaccuracy. I thought that the truth was somewhere between the two extremes and it seems that this is so. How can I succintly express that to my tour-goers?

    Thanks for this really interesting blog!

    1. Hi Margaret,

      Thanks for the comment! When you refer to “all military” that served in the Civil War, I’m assuming you mean Union and Confederate soldiers? To answer that question, no, the GAR never recognized all Civil War veterans as members of the GAR, especially former Confederates. A GAR almanac from 1880 cogently states that “no person shall be eligible to membership who has at any time borne arms against the United States.”

      In fact, the GAR even struggled a bit to get Union veterans to join the organization. At its peak in 1890, the GAR had a membership of 409,489 veterans, which was roughly half the number of living Union veterans at that time. That year, National GAR Commander-in-Chief Russell Alger visited the Indiana State Encampment (the annual meeting of the Indiana GAR) and remarked that “there are some of our comrades still without the G.A.R. organization. They should join with us. United we stand, and with unbroken ranks we will have something to say about the affairs of this Nation.” (“The Camp Fire,” Indianapolis Journal, March 12, 1890) While the GAR was popular throughout the country, many veterans like the famous author Ambrose Bierce (who fought with the 9th Indiana) had no desire to join the GAR and remember, commemorate, or glorify the war.

      I am working at the Indiana State House right now, and sometimes visitors will ask me about the GAR because there are many monuments in Indianapolis the GAR funded that still stand today. I tell them that the GAR was the largest Union Veterans fraternal organization in the United States and usually leave it at that. If they ask me about membership, I give them that 400,000 number and tell them that roughly half of all Union veterans chose to join the organization.

      Hopefully that answers your question and gives you some information to help you succinctly answer questions about the GAR. I am writing my master’s thesis about the GAR in Indiana and am having a blast reading and writing about the organization. Thanks for reading and feel free to ask any other questions you may have about the GAR!


      1. Wow! Thanks, Nick, for this complete and well-stated answer. I shall use this information on my tour. Thanks a million!

      2. No problem, Margaret! Thanks so much for taking time to read my blog. It is truly appreciated. I’m going to be in Chicago in early October, and while I’m going to be very limited time-wise, I will now strongly consider taking a tour of the Chicago Cultural Center 🙂

  2. I would be happy to meet you there and give you the tour myself, if you like. But if schedule conflicts arise, check out the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website, or In mid-October, the CAF hosts “Open Chicago,” a free, self-guided tour to hundreds of interesting buildings and sites throughout the city which are open to the public. The Cultural Center is always free and almost always open (not Sundays or holidays). Thanks again!

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