Saturday, December 29, 2012

Uncovering History in the GAR Cemetery

Medal of Honor Recipient Col. Hartwell B. Compson, GAR Cemetery, Portland, Oregon

          Yesterday several of us from History & Heritage went to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) cemetery in Portland to do some work. It is a small cemetery with less than 1000 interments. Our goal is to find each headstone, corner marker, or other stone or metal marker, photograph them all, and create a complete detailed map and listing of the folks buried there.
          We did a bit of work: some clearing of shrubbery, uncovering some stones, and a little photography. Then I pulled out the divining rods to search a large, irregularly shaped area that appears to have no stones. “Appears” is the key word here, because sometimes there is a head- or footstone, buried under four or six inches of soil, like this one:

          For those of you who have never seen or used a divining rod, let me tell you that I am a total skeptic about things like this. But last summer I was tromping around in a cemetery outside of Pittsburgh and met a man there who was divining. He showed me the process and explained that it isn’t “magic” or “new age” but science. The copper of the divining rod reacts to the changes in the magnetic field. If I hold out the divining rod and walk from grass to pavement the rod reacts. If I walk from pavement to grass, I get a reaction. If there is a grave the divining rod reacts. Same for sewer pipes and other things underground. Tree roots don’t seem to cause a reaction, even the really huge ones. And until he put the divining rod in my hand and I felt and saw it move as I walked over a grave and then off of it and onto the next one, I didn’t believe him. But I do now.
          Anyway, we decided to try the divining rod to see if there was a grave in that big chunk of unmarked land.  I walked back and forth, up and down, and got a “hit” in the same area from several directions. The area was in line with other graves there, but diagonal. But it was where the layout of the graves begins to curve, so that made some sense.
          I had someone else walk the area and she also got the same indication that there was something in that area. So we set to work looking for it.
          The tools we use to find headstones, or any stone, are very fancy and technical sorts of instruments. Some old shishkabob skewers. We systematically stab them 12 to 18 inches into the ground and if we hit something we stab around the area to get an idea of the size and then start digging. I hit something but found it to be long and thin, not square. It could have been a root, but you quickly learn the feel of things when you do this and it felt harder. Maybe a rock. Maybe metal.
          I started to dig with my trusty trowel (I told you we used high-tech tools!) and about five or six inches down found some rusty coloration in the soil and then hit something hard. Another five minutes of careful digging revealed something flat and bumpy and possibly metal. I assumed it was going to be some junk but continued to dig it up. First I pulled out a small piece of metal, maybe an inch long and roughly triangular. Then a larger chunk of metal that was square but with some protrusions.
          It looked vaguely familiar to me and as we cleaned the dirt from it I finally recognized it. It was an old iron GAR flag holder. This is what they looked like when refurbished:

          We kept digging, opening a wider and longer hole because there was something else in there, something longer.

          Eventually we uncovered a long iron rod with a broken GAR star on top. And then a whole one, with all of the star’s points intact. Ultimately our find looked like this:

          Muddy, yes. Rusted, beyond a doubt. But clearly two complete GAR flag holders and the parts of at least three others.
I took them home and washed them up and they didn’t look much better:

          I think that the one on the far right can definitely be salvaged. The one on the left seems a little less likely, but I’ll give it a try. The agency that manages the cemetery has been easy to work with and I suspect they will approve my plan to clean these up and place them on two graves in the GAR cemetery. The other option is for the agency to put them in a box in some basement storage where they will be forgotten. But if I can make them presentable, they will continue to fulfill their purpose as they grace and honor the graves of two Civil War veterans.


  1. What an interesting and fun day Kate! I had no idea there were civil war graves in the PNW!!

    I look forward to hearing the fate of these found treasures.


  2. Tami, there are Civil War era graves all over the PNW - no doubt in your neck of the woods, too. I'll have to look them up and next time I get up your way we can go see some of them!

  3. An amazing story Kate, and I am so happy you had the blessing of finding such mementos. Thank you for sharing, I was enthralled with your entire story! What a wonderful find!!