Students restore Civil War cemetery
College students on spring break joined hundreds of other volunteers at a Louisiana cemetery. The cemetery dates back to the Civil War. The students realigned hundreds of tilted headstones. They removed grime from thousands more. Some headstones mark the graves of Union soldiers. Others are from later eras.
College students from Ohio and Boy Scouts from Texas were among more than 800 people who pitched in. They restored graves at Chalmette National Cemetery. It is near New Orleans. Many of the roughly 8,000 headstones were green with algae. Others were stained with soot from nearby refineries. Still others were askew in spongy Mississippi River soil. Flooding from Hurricane Katrina also took its toll. The hurricane occurred in 2005.
"We're sitting on a delta," said Ranger Kristy Wallisch. She is spokeswoman for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. It includes the cemetery. "Just like our houses and other things, these headstones start to sink under their own weight. And tilt."
The Civil War was the deadliest conflict on American soil. Today, more than 150 years later, custodians of many such cemeteries are still doing battle in their upkeep.
The Chalmette cemetery was created in 1864. That is when Union troops occupied New Orleans. Most of the Civil War-era soldiers died of diseases. Those included yellow fever, dysentery and pneumonia. This is according to park curator Kathy Lang.
"Some enlisted, say, in December and died in May from disease. That's kind of sad," she said. But New Orleans isn't unique. About two-thirds of the roughly 620,000 Civil War casualties died of disease, not wounds.
The National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries. The Department of Veterans Affairs manages 134. The Army maintains two, including Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
Wallisch said the Chalmette cemetery site includes an adjacent tract. It is where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. That was in 1815. The cemetery now has just three or four maintenance workers. That's compared to six or seven in the early 2000s.
This is where the army of volunteers came in. The volunteers included about 50 Ohio State University students. They were seeking a different kind of spring break. The National Trust for Historical Preservation called volunteers ages 16 to 70 to take part in its 3-year-old "HOPE Crew." The acronym HOPE stands for Hands-On Preservation Experience.
The Chalmette project began in early March. It concluded April 1.
"We get people to work with their hands, have a very real and visceral experience and closer connection to restoration," said project coordinator Monica Rhodes.
A volunteer crew of professionals pulled headstones from the most misaligned sections of the cemetery early on. The student volunteers took it from there. They used shovels, buckets and sponges. They worked under the guidance of restoration experts.
When the OSU students were there, Rusty Brenner of Texas Cemetery Restoration LLC in Dallas explained how to calculate the depth of the holes they needed. And, he told them how much gravel to add. This was before setting the headstones precisely upright.
"The gravel keeps it steady," said Monet Scroggins. She is a student from Dayton, Ohio.
"And it allows drainage," Brenner said.
Jason Church of the park service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training said Chalmette's cemetery is in a more industrial area than most national cemeteries. It's bounded by an oil refinery and a sugar refinery. The area is beside the Mississippi River.
Church said more than 260 headstones have been realigned. "We're hitting water at 4 inches deep," Church noted.
Volunteers cleaned 600 to 800 headstones a day, he said. More than 5,000 headstones and well over 1,000 smaller markers had been cleaned days before the project's close.
About 6,000 unknown soldiers have only small marble markers. This is according to Courtney "Cam" Amabile, the park's resources program assistant.
The 6-inch tall markers aren't much higher than the fire ant mounds and mudball "castles" of crawfish burrows that dot the grounds.
In total, Amabile tallied up 14,121 headstones and markers at the cemetery. Wallisch said about 7,300 Union soldiers and sailors are buried at the site. All died somewhere in Louisiana during the war. The remaining graves hold other military personnel. They served in eras through the Vietnam War. That war was during the 1960's and '70s.
Nearly 130 Confederate soldiers also were buried in a mass grave at Chalmette. They were moved after the war. That is when Congress passed a law stating only Union soldiers could be buried in the national cemeteries, Wallisch said. Nearly 7,000 African-American civilian graves also were relocated, she said.
Boy Scouts from Corpus Christi, Texas, also worked at the cemetery, said HOPE Crew's Rhodes. So have community groups, military groups, high school students and alumni from several universities.
"Everybody's giving a little bit to achieve a major goal," Rhodes said.