COUNTLESS stories can be found in the names etched upon a tall obelisk in Newbern Cemetery. Sadly, few of them are likely to be told.
The monument has been a fixture in the cemetery for better than a century. The only readily available records indicate that it might have been put in place about 1906. If so, that would have been 40 years after the U.S. Civil War, the epic conflict that it commemorates.
Actually the stone really commemorates those who are listed on it — 15 men who had lived in or around Newbern before they went off to fight in the war.
It is not a grave marker. No one is buried in its shadow. The men listed simply never returned to their homes.
The distinctive memorial long has captured the attention of Donna Kuhlman, a local genealogist who has spent several years tracing the lineage of local families.
“I guess I find it intriguing because it’s so different,” Kuhlman said earlier this week. “It posed so many questions.”
The marker itself offered little to go on. Even the names were circumspect. Few of the soldiers were listed by their full names. Most only had a last name and a first initial. The explanatory line at the base said simply, “In memory of the soldiers that never returned.”
In researching the marker, Kuhlman came across a clipping from the May 26, 1911, issue of The Evening Republican (the forerunner of The Republic). It described plans for a touching Memorial Day ceremony at the monument in which residents of the area were to “march to the cemetery, headed by the Hope band, and the band will form in a circle around the monument erected to those who never returned. The infant class of the Sunday School will place a wreath on the mound after which a wreath and a bouquet for each of the 15 soldiers will be piled on the mound at the foot of the shaft.”
The 1911 story went on to provide some background to the memorial, noting that it had been erected “by the patriotic citizens of Newbern about five years earlier.” It also provided some poignant information as to why it was erected in the first place.
“Fifteen brave men who enlisted in the Union Army from the Newbern neighborhood never came home. They were never heard of after the war was over, and so far as the Newbern people know, all of these men are sleeping in unknown, unmarked and unhonored graves.”
That’s what empowered Kuhlman to find out what had happened to the men.
“I began on this project about 10 years ago,” the Columbus resident said. “I worked on it as recently as a couple of months ago. When I started there were a number of resources available, but over the past few years the amount of information available on the Internet has simply exploded.”
Kuhlman was able to learn the fate of 14 of the men listed on the memorial. Four of them are buried in national cemeteries across the country. She found dates of death and locations for all but three.
The fate of one, however, remains a mystery.
“I just have not been able to find a connection for a man listed only as J. Young,” she said. “There was no match in the Civil War records. I’ve been exploring the possibility that there might have been a mix-up when the memorial was erected and that he might actually have been killed in the war against Mexico (1846 to 1848).”
In her research, Kuhlman also came across information beyond dates for birth and death. One story involved two men named McCombs.
“They were father and son,” she said. “It was somewhat unusual because the father (Charles McCombs) was more than 50 years old when he enlisted.”
Both the father and son (William John McCombs) had emigrated from Ireland. Charles McCombs died in an accident on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg in 1863. William was killed at Resaca, Ga., and is buried in the national cemetery at Chattanooga, Tenn.
Perhaps as the resources continue to grow, Kuhlman will be able to find more stories about the 15 men from Newbern who went to war and never returned. She’s found out quite a bit so far, the most important being that a number of them are not “sleeping in unknown, unmarked and unhonored graves.”
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.