Restoring gravestones of Civil War veterans

More volunteers needed for project at Oak Ridge Cemetery

Photo by Floyd Mansberger.
Paul Golladay cleaning the military headstone of Private William Melcher, Company A, 97th Illinois. Melcher died Jan. 26,1903.

Paul Golladay is on a mission. He is Sergeant First Class with the Illinois Army National Guard, serving full time as Officer Candidate School Course Manager. However, his volunteer mission is to restore gravestones of Civil War veterans buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Many of the marble markers are leaning or fallen over and covered in lichens and moss. Some are worn smooth. Golladay and several other volunteers have successfully cleaned and reset four headstones. There are hundreds more Civil War headstones at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Golladay invites others who are interested in history and want to honor our Civil War veterans to join this effort.

Golladay's longtime association with Springfield archaeologist Floyd Mansberger of Fever River Research led to this undertaking. Golladay was assisting Mansberger with the archaeological excavation as part of the 10th Street rail project. They found military artifacts while excavating a home that belonged to David Sappington, north and east of the nearby 1908 Race Riot site. This sparked Golladay's curiosity to learn more. Silas Sappington, nephew of David Sappington, served during the Civil War in an all-Black regiment that was depicted in the movie, Glory. Silas Sappington lived in Springfield from the time he was discharged in 1865 until his death in 1922. Golladay found his grave site in Section 24 at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The marble headstone, erected in 1925, was sunken and leaning over. Golladay and his team reset the marker with a solid footing. They also use an organic cleaning agent recommended by the National Park Service to clean the stones.

To date Golladay, Mansberger, Christopher Stratton and Madeline Robinson, who are all involved with Fever River Research, and Adam Krall from the Illinois State Military Museum, have reset and cleaned markers for: Corporal Silas Sappington, Company D, 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry; Sergeant Robert Woods, Company A, 56th United States Colored Infantry; Private William Melcher, Company A, 97th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Corporal John Morehead, Company A, 99th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Golladay was able to get permission to work on the markers because the marble headstones are not owned by individual families but are owned by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. Prior to the Civil War, soldiers were buried where they died or in cemetery plots within post reservations and marked with a wooden board. There was no centralized system to record burials. This proved inadequate given the huge number of casualties during the Civil War. In 1861 the first organized system to mark graves was created, and the first national cemeteries were developed at the start of the Civil War to bury Union dead.

Immediately after the Civil War, the U.S. Army embarked on an ambitious program to relocate remains of U.S. troops from their wartime burial places to national cemeteries. By the early 1870s, more than 350,000 Union dead had been buried in national cemeteries. Also in the 1870s, wooden headboards were replaced with marble headstones after the Secretary of War approved the design. In 1879, Congress authorized the federal government to provide headstones for veterans buried in private and municipal cemeteries. In 1929 Illinois published a Roll of Honor, listing the locations of the burial places of individuals buried in Illinois who served in any U.S. war. Information about the honor roll is on the Illinois State Archives website

Camp Butler, near Riverton, established in 1862, was one of the first national cemeteries. However, the municipally owned Oak Ridge Cemetery is the final resting place for at least 438 Civil War veterans from Illinois and many other Civil War veterans who served in other states and moved to Springfield after the war. The federal government continues to provide markers for eligible veterans. For more information about eligibility and the National Cemetery Administration go to

Golladay and his fellow volunteers are walking the cemetery to identify markers of Civil War veterans in need of restoration. Initially they are focusing on those that can be more readily restored through proper cleaning and resetting. For each marker they restore, they document and research the veteran and compile a bio. Some markers have been worn smooth, and the inscriptions are not legible. In these cases, and with appropriate documentation, a new marker can be provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Golladay's objective is to keep the original marble headstone whenever possible.

Golladay is working to grow his small team of volunteers and engage other history-minded community members. Articles of incorporation have been developed with the intent to establish a nonprofit organization by the new year. For more information or to get involved, contact Paul Golladay at [email protected].

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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