Man on a mission to honor fallen Confederate soldiers

By Mark St. John Erickson
April 29, 2013

Cecil W. Thomas III strides down an old brick walk outside historic St. John’s Church, scanning its ancient cemetery left and right for the tell-tale signs of Civil War soldiers.  Hundreds and hundreds of tombstones and monuments rise from the earth as he walks. But what he’s searching for much closer to the ground are the low gray forms of Confederate memorial crosses.

Singly and in clusters as large as six and seven, these cast-iron markers crop up like mournful flowers here — and Thomas nods toward every one with the reverence and familiarity of someone who feels a personal attachment.

For nearly a year, he spent much of his free time alongside them on his hands and knees, wearing out a half-dozen wire brushes in a determined one-man campaign to scrape off the rust and restore every one of 166 crosses.

That’s fewer than half, however, of the nearly 400 he’s brushed off, primed and repainted over the past four years in a string of cemeteries that stretches from St. John’s in Hampton across the James River to his old family burial ground at Mill Swamp Cemetery in Isle of Wight County.

"Most of these guys were simple, ordinary people. They believed they were fighting for their homes and their families," says Thomas, whose blood ties to the war include not only 28 kinsmen who fought for the South but also distant cousin George Henry Thomas, the Southampton County soldier whose battlefield prowess as a Union general sparked such nicknames as "The Sledge of Nashville" and "The Rock of Chickamauga."

"My great-great-grandfather, James Henry Thomas, was shot six times but still survived the war — and I don’t want people like him to be forgotten."

Such devout acts of remembrance are one reason why the Civil War, and the culture of honor and mourning it spawned, continues to draw scholarly attention more than 150 years after the conflict started.

Many of the distinctive military burial rites taken for granted in the United States today reach back to that turbulent time, says historian J. Michael Cobb, who will explore the origin of these traditions in a free lunchtime program scheduled for noon Wednesday at the Hampton History Museum.

Before the Civil War, the country had no systematic way to count and identify its fallen warriors, no way to notify next of kin and no provision for the decent burials of those killed in the line of duty.

But as described by Harvard University historian Drew Gilpin Faust in her ground-breaking 2008 book — "The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" — all that changed dramatically with the deaths of as many as 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

"At the center of the war was the vast number of the killed and wounded. It was unprecedented," Cobb said, recounting losses that would be the equivalent of 6 million killed today.

"And in the South — where three in five men of military age fought and one in five died — practically everyone was touched."

Thomas learned about that impact early on, hearing story after family story about the war as a child.

But not until the Chesapeake man visited the Isle of Wight graveyard of his ancestors for the first time in 1986 did he begin to grasp the full extent of its consequences for his kin.

More than a dozen of those who fought are buried at Mill Swamp, and — as the only surviving male Thomas in the region — the young man started tending their headstones and memorial crosses.

Five years later, he says, he decided to remember their sacrifice by marking their graves with small Confederate flags.

Over time, that act of family devotion expanded to include the burial places of other Southern soldiers. Soon Thomas was planting some 200 flags twice each year in a ritual that cost him hundreds of dollars.

Not long after joining the Isle of Wight camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2008, he took on the added task of restoring the soldiers’ cast-iron crosses.

"Whenever I put out the flags, I saw the way they looked — and it really upset me," Thomas said.

"Some of the crosses at St. John’s looked like they hadn’t been kept up for 50 years."

Even that diligence may not be enough, however, for a man whose reverence for the fallen now takes him as far as Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, where more than 20,000 Confederate graves inspired one of the first Memorial Day observances in 1866.

"I’m very serious about this," he says, looking out over the crosses at St. John’s.

"I’m going to come back and clean off every single tombstone, too."

Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press

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