Local group ensures Civil War Union vets’ graves honored for Memorial Day
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Sprinkled among the tombstones in Lawrence cemeteries are those that reveal an important chapter in the settlement of Lawrence and Kansas.
The tombstones are upright makers with a rounded top above a shield-like carving. Within the carvings, the individuals in the graves are identified as veterans of Union forces during the Civil War. This weekend, the graves will also be marked with American flags placed by the Samuel J. Churchill Sons of Union Veterans Camp of Lawrence.
“All veterans deserve a flag on their graves on Memorial Day,” said Mike Hadl, Lawrence Sons of Union Veterans member. “We take it upon ourselves to see these veterans are honored. We usually get help from Cub and Boy scouts, but we didn’t ask them this year because of the pandemic.”
The large number of Union veteran graves in Lawrence cemeteries demonstrates Kansas’ attraction to soldiers looking to start a new life after the hardship of war, Hadl said. Those veterans were often drawn to Kansas through the promise of land the 1862 Homestead Act offered.
“Kansas was known as a mecca for Civil War veterans,” Hadl said. “Thousands of veterans came to Kansas after the war to get their 160 acres.”
There are more than 400 Union veterans buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in east Lawrence, Hadl said. Pioneer Cemetery on the University of Kansas’ West Campus has about 20 graves of Union veterans, and Maple Grove Cemetery on U.S. Highways 24/59 just north of Tipi Junction in North Lawrence is the resting place for more than 60 Union veterans, Hadl said.
Bob Wandel, a former member of the local Sons of Union Veterans Camp, researched many of the men lying beneath the Lawrence Civil War tombstones, including three men awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery in the war, Hadl said. Those three are Thomas N. Graham, Seymour Hall and the local camp’s namesake Samuel J. Churchill.
Graham was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge, in which he seized the colors from a wounded bearer and carried them forward through heavy fire to plant on Confederate breastworks. Hall was awarded his Medal of Honor for his actions in the 1862 Battle of Gaines’ Mill and the 1863 Battle of Rappahannock Station in Virginia. Churchill was awarded the medal for his heroism in the 1864 Battle of Nashville. Churchill stayed with a cannon battery when his fellow artillerymen retreated from advancing Confederates, Hadl said. Churchill then single-handedly laid down enough cannon fire to check the Confederates until he was rejoined by his comrades.
Among the Union veteran graves in the Maple Grove Cemetery are those of black soldiers, Hadl said. The location of the graves provides yet another history lesson.
Although the black soldiers fought with white soldiers to end the bondage many black Union soldiers were born into, their final resting place shows the legacy of racism survived the war.
“Maple Grove was a segregated cemetery,” he said. “The black veterans are buried on the east side.”