John Rowland

John Rowland

I left the house Monday afternoon shortly before 3 p.m. My to-do list showed that I would check out the Civil War sections at Springdale and Oakland cemeteries and write a Memorial Day article for the Clinton Herald and the Gateway History Club.

My plan was to write about the 1915 Memorial Day celebration in Clinton, 50 years after the Civil War had ended. I arrived at the Civil War section in Springdale at 3 p.m., parked the car out of the way and slowly walked down the hill to where the boys in blue rested.

My heart sank and the 50-year celebration story floated away as I walked down to the faded grave markers. The weeds were well over a foot high and covered most of the gravestones. Many of the small flags that were placed during brighter days long ago were now covered with dust and weeds. The flags were torn, faded, and tilting in the afternoon breeze. The flag holders with the GAR emblem and the American Legion markers were intertwined with weeds, some flag holders were broken or bent over, and others were sinking into the ground.

I walked slowly along the faded markers and counted the headstones. There were 25 markers in each of the outside rows. The center row had nine headstones. Twenty of the headstones had been replaced with new ones thanks to Mike Kearney and others. The spot where the large Civil War cannon once rested was vacant. The cannon was removed for the World War II scrap drive.

The large Civil War veteran’s memorial stood high above it all in the afternoon sun and seemed to ignore the tilted stones and the field of weeds. On the base of the monument, it simply stated in faded letters that were hard to read. “Erected by General N.B. Baker Post No. 88. GAR and WRC No. 10. 1891 Clinton, Iowa.

The marker for Elizabeth Lizzie Fairfax, the lone woman buried in the Civil War section, stood tall among the weeds and showed the dates: Born 1819 and Died 1908. Lizzie, a former slave, was a Black woman who acted as a scout, nurse, and helper to the Iowa Infantry soldiers during the Civil War. When the war was over, Lizzie returned with the troops to Clinton and started a new life here.

As I walked among the silent stones and weeds, I thought of other Memorial Days, community celebrations, and the question flashing through my mind: “How did we get to this?”

I thought about my old neighbor from long ago, James Trainer. I mowed his lawn. He was the first customer on my paper route. Jim was born in 1854, seven years before the Civil War started and one year before Clinton officially became a city. I thought about the stories he told and of his brothers fighting in the Civil War.

I remembered Mr. Gasser, the owner of the local hardware store, a captain in World War I, and how he proudly put on his old World War I uniform to march in the local parade. I remembered the celebrations in my mother’s home and my father’s family when their brothers came home from World War II. I remember some of the older guys in the neighborhood going to a place called Korea.

I thought about the young kids that went to Vietnam. My brother went to school with Gilbertson, Pitzer, and Radley. They now have a permanent place on the wall in Washington D.C. and the American Legion Post back home is now named in their honor. Leland Radley was my brother-in-law’s youngest brother.

I thought about the veteran’s memorial in Riverview Park and the two stone obelisks that contain the names of 232 Clinton County service members who were either killed in action or missing in action. On the base of the memorial, it simply states: “Lest We Forget.” Again, I think, how did we get to this?

I thought about calling someone to let them know about the weeds, the faded flags, and tilted headstones. Who could I call? We are only a few days away from Memorial Day and the size of the clean-up area is massive. It will take a Herculean effort to put a dent in any of this mess. It seems senseless to start pushing the blame on anyone. This is a community problem that needs a long-term solution.

It’s obvious Springdale Cemetery needs new long-term leadership, a large amount of new financial help, and new long-term planning solutions. A quick fix will not work here.

Clinton is not alone; many of the cemeteries in America are suffering a similar fate. Numerous cemetery funds that were set up years ago desperately need a supply of new money, young volunteers, and new board members to oversee operations. At this point in time the care, cleanup, and maintenance of local cemeteries seem to diminish with each passing generation.

The Civil War was fought to preserve the union, abolish slavery, and ensure equality for all. Slavery was deeply entrenched in this country since the very beginning. All of the original 13 colonies at one time all allowed slavery. When the Civil War started there were 19 free states and 15 slave states. Iowa was not allowed to join the Union until after Missouri was allowed into the Union as a slave state.

The Civil War was fought nearly 160 years ago. Yet, headlines and news stories continue to show great divisions in our country over issues such as mass shootings in schools and on the streets. Courts now act more as legislators. Racist and homophobic rants are common and often lead to violence.

Laws are now being designed to restrict voting rights, women’s rights, and weaken public school education. Laws are used to restrict labor rights, expand child labor, and attack the marginalized members in society. Little wonder that wars fought to preserve the nation, the heroes buried in our nation’s cemeteries, and the lessons learned from past history are easily forgotten.

Somehow the notes I had written for this Memorial Day don’t seem quite as important right now. However, I would like to share a few.

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War. The holiday was official changed to Memorial Day in 1967.

The Civil War began in April 1861 and ended in April 1865. Civil War records show about 360,222 Union soldiers died and about 258,00 Confederate soldiers died. Recent research is suggesting that the 618,000 deaths listed during the Civil War is an extremely low number.

In 1865, Congress established several national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

Decoration Day originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict and the holiday evolved into Memorial Day. The Memorial Day tradition continued in order to commemorate all American military personnel who died in other wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, the Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, many Americans still observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding special services or family gatherings and some communities feature speeches and parades. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war — a tradition that began during World War I. Unofficially, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer.

Have a safe and fun-filled weekend with family and friends.

And don’t forget to thank a veteran for their service.

John Rowland is the co-chairman of the Gateway History Club.

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