Last year, the nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. This momentous occasion, in which over 600,000 individuals lost their lives, profoundly affected New York State as well as the still young nation. New York State not only contributed the most of the northern states, but also paid dearly with the loss of over 50,000 soldiers according to the New York State Military Museum.
The graves of some of those soldiers who died in the Civil War, as well as those who served during the war, are scattered in many cemeteries throughout Ulster County. Some are in far corners of large cemeteries that were once smaller- others are located off of major roadways back in woods which have been long forgotten – enter Laura Smith, President of the Veterans Grave Preservation Association.
Smith, a transplant from Brooklyn and now a resident of Wawarsing, conducted some research on a Civil War veteran who, at 23 years of age, died in the Battle of Gettysburg. When she decided to go to the Leurenkill Cemetery in Ellenville in order to visit the fallen ieutenant’s grave, she was shocked at the state of the grave and those of other Civil War veterans in the cemetery.
Her feeling at the time could be summed up from a line in President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” She clearly felt that this man’s grave had all but been forgotten. When she started investigating other cemeteries that were deemed “abandoned or older,” Mrs. Smith found the same issue with respect to veterans’ grave. A woman with a deep connection to both history and her country, this was unacceptable to her. Smith quickly found that righting this wrong was a daunting task.
Maintaining and preserving older or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds has become a contentious issue in New York State. There are many of these cemeteries around Ulster County and the state. Once a cemetery has been deemed abandoned, the local municipality becomes responsible for the care of the grounds by law. However, according to a lawsuit brought by the Fire Place History Club against the Town of Brookhaven on Long Island (which the group won), the State of New York only orders local municipalities to perform minimal maintenance on these deserted grounds. This minimal maintenance consists of mowing the grass and removing brush and weeds, sometimes as little as twice a year. In addition, the municipalities have to maintain the integrity of any fences.
During these financially strapped times, local governments are finding funds stressed to the limits. Sometimes these burying grounds are placed on the back burner. “For me this was unacceptable,” Smith stated, “because some of these older grounds needed so much more than just a snip of the green. Trees were down and stones had toppled over during Mother Nature’s onslaught.” This is an obvious reference to the hurricane and flooding that hit Ulster County quite hard in the summer of 2011. The early snow storm of October 2011 also took down many trees and branches. She continued: “We all know how the winters can be up here in the Catskills.”
This is not a unique issue facing Ellenville or even Ulster County. Oyster Bay, also on Long Island, has faced the same issues as Brookhaven. However, hoping to avoid lawsuits compelling them to maintain the old burying grounds, Oyster Bay has taken the lead by instituting a portion of New York State Law governing abandoned cemeteries. They have started to organize volunteer groups to upkeep these grounds, like Mrs. Smith has, and have encouraged other groups to adopt cemeteries, much like the Adopt a Highway program, with the town acting as liaison by offering advice and resources. The Supervisor of the Town of Oyster Bay explained that under New York State Law, these groups can range from church groups to the Boy Scouts.
Smith is a member of the Ulster County Civil War Roundtable and she works at the Ellenville Public Library and Museum. She works closely with Dick Constant, a Vietnam Veteran, as well as a Legionnaire at the Cook Taylor Post in Ellenville. They both do this honorable work strictly as volunteers with the help of other volunteers, and the assistance of the Town of Wawarsing. Her mission has expanded to not only include veterans of the Civil War, but all veterans’ graves in Ellenville and the Town of Wawarsing. She also has started documenting the lives of these veterans as well.
Smith and her cadre of volunteers not only maintain the graves of the veterans, but also ensure that a flag is placed on each grave for Memorial Day. The society heavily depends on donations of money, skills, and good old fashioned manual labor.
Photo: Above, a volunteer fixes a headstone (Courtesy Laura Smith)- Below, Civil War Veterans in front of the Methodist Church on Canal Street. Believed to be circa 1905-1912. Photo by A. V. Porter, Ellenville, NY. If you have information that might help identify the men in this photo, please leave a comment below.