Students restore Civil War cemetery Ohio State University students Willie Love, left,, of Cincinnati, and Ashauna Mathews, of Canton, Ohio, spray a cleaning solution on gravestones at Chalmette National Cemetery in Chalmette, La. Between them is Jasmine Harris, of Cleveland. They were among about 50 Ohio State students working at the cemetery, as part of a nearly month-long project organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (AP Photo/Janet McConnaughey)
Students restore Civil War cemetery
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College students on spring break joined hundreds of other volunteers at a cemetery dating to the Civil War, realigning hundreds of tilted headstones and scrubbing grime from thousands more. Some mark the graves of Union soldiers, while others are from later eras.
 
College students from Ohio and Boy Scouts from Texas were among more than 800 people who pitched in to restore graves at Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans. Many of the roughly 8,000 headstones were green with algae, stained with soot from nearby refineries or askew in spongy Mississippi River soil. Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also took its toll.
 
"We're sitting on a delta," said Ranger Kristy Wallisch, spokeswoman for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, which includes the cemetery. "Just like our houses and other things, these headstones start to sink under their own weight, and tilt."
 
More than a century and half since the end of the deadliest conflict on American soil, custodians of many such cemeteries are still doing battle in their upkeep.
 
The Chalmette cemetery was created in 1864, when Union troops occupied New Orleans. Most of the Civil War-era soldiers died of such diseases as yellow fever, dysentery and pneumonia, said 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 134 and the Army two, including Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
 
Nationwide budget cuts have not spared this cemetery. Wallisch said the Chalmette cemetery site, including an adjacent tract where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1815, has just three or four maintenance workers compared to six or seven in the early 2000s.
 
That's where the army of volunteers came in, including about 50 Ohio State University students 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," or Hands-On Preservation Experience.
 
The Chalmette project began in early March and 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, taking up shovels, buckets and sponges 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 how much gravel to add before setting the headstones precisely upright.
 
"The gravel keeps it steady," said Monet Scroggins, a student from Dayton, Ohio.
 
"Right. 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 beside the Mississippi River.
 
He said more than 260 headstones have been realigned. "We're hitting water at 4 inches deep," Church said recently.
 
Volunteers cleaned 600 to 800 headstones a day, he said, so that 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, said 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 dotting 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 military personnel who served in eras through the Vietnam War.
 
Nearly 130 Confederate soldiers also were buried in a mass grave at Chalmette but were moved after the war 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.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why might this cemetery require more care than cemeteries in other parts of the U.S.?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (9)
  • erino-6-bar
    4/22/2016 - 12:07 a.m.

    This cemetery requires more care than cemeteries in other parts of the U.S. because of its location. The Mississippi River in addition to multiple refineries are nearby. This has caused many of the headstones to grown "green with algae, stained with soot from nearby refineries or askew in spongy Mississippi River soil."

    I liked this article because there were so many people who volunteered to clean the headstones and it's good to know that people will do things like that when they gain no clear benefit.

  • briannec-ste
    4/25/2016 - 09:36 p.m.

    This cemetery requires more care because it is one of the oldest ones and it's from the civil war with people who have fought to keep our country safe, they deserve the respect of their graves being saved.

  • ravend-bag
    4/25/2016 - 11:48 p.m.

    This cemetery would need more care because of the climate, and so much water, and so many graves or tombstones, it is to hard to take care of all of them

  • julianc-bag
    4/27/2016 - 07:50 p.m.

    This cemetery might need more care because of all the old soldiers that had given their lives in the 1800's to WW1.

  • shannonb-wal
    4/29/2016 - 01:56 p.m.

    This cemetery requires more care than other cementeries because it is a National Park that serves the purpose of honoring deceased soldiers lives. It is in a location where the soil isn't stable making the upkeep difficult. The headstones were "green with algae, stained with soot from nearby refineries or askew in spongy Missippi River soil". The Civil War soldiers deserve respect for keeping our country together, and a messy grave is no way to show it. Since the cemetery is in Louisiana, the soldiers would've been buried in a different country if they didn't lose their life fighting. This is why the cemetery requires more care.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    4/29/2016 - 02:40 p.m.

    I love that people take time out of their day to fix our history's monuments. Its fantastic that people care enough. I've always thought that people didn't care.

  • eliset-bag
    5/02/2016 - 10:35 p.m.

    These Cemeteries may need more care because they are the people who sacrificed their lives for us in the WW1 and they deserve all that attention and care that they can get.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    5/09/2016 - 09:16 p.m.

    I think that it is good that many people volunteered to clean and move some of the graves that were in the cemetery that were for Union soldiers. They had to move some of the Confederate soldiers due to the new law that Congress had just passed. The volunteer crew also cleaned the graves and repaired it a little after all the deterioration it went through.
    This cemetery might require more care than cemeteries in other parts of the U.S. because it is the burial site of the Union soldiers.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/26/2016 - 08:05 p.m.

    This Civil War cemetery may require more care than cemeteries in other parts of the U.S. because of the conditions left behind from Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi's spongy soil also plays a role in its upkeep, as it would make it very hard to keep headstones standing up straight. Along with the area the cemetery is found in, the refineries located near the cemetery would add to the difficulty of the cemetery's upkeep.

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