A custom in the United States is to decorate the graves of military veterans with small American flags to observe the Memorial Day holiday in late May. Despite the best efforts of families, neighbors and veterans’ organizations, some graves are overlooked. By late October, many of the flags that were placed back in the spring have been lost, displaced during the summer and early fall by maintenance crews or uprooted by the wind. Some flags end up littering the ground.
If I’m visiting a cemetery and I see a flag on the ground, I try to return it to the grave it came from. If I can’t figure out which grave that was, then I’ll plant it beside any nearby likely grave marker which lacks a flag.
Usually, the placement or replacement of a flag is simple. One time, however, I discovered at my feet an austere government-issue marker, darkened by time, flush with the ground, and partly overgrown with grass. It seemed to have been overlooked that May, and maybe was nearly forgotten altogether. I had a spare American flag, and decided to place it there.
The wooden dowel that served as a miniature “flagpole” slid easily into the ground. When I tried to reposition the flag, however, it wouldn’t come back out. Not to be too imaginative about it, but it was if someone or something was pulling on the other end of the dowel from underground.
That story has a happy ending. I left well enough alone. The grave was welcome to keep the flag. I was only trying to make the installation neater anyway. The flag survived the winter, and the now more easily visible grave got a brand new flag the next spring. Thereafter somebody began to look after the marker. These days, the stone is much more visible and the grass around it is trimmed. Sometimes small bunches of flowers appear. Thank you for your service, Mister Wilmot.
For this Hallowe’en, the Uncertaintist recounts a very recent instance where your ob’d correspondent’s attention was directed to another neglected gravestone, whether by happenstance or by something hidden.
As with so many Uncertaintist stories, this one begins with a dog. A few days ago, I parked beside the row of trees that define a certain cemetery’s limits to greet a yellow Lab of long acquaintance who lives across the street from the burial ground. When I returned to the car, I saw through the trees that a fallen flag had landed along a row of old headstones. I entered the cemetery to fix things.
The headstones nearest where the flag was resting belonged to Nineteenth Century women and lacked any indication of military service. Looking around, my best guess for where the flag had been was a family plot one row over, with a shared headstone and several individuals’ footstones. Perhaps one of those markers was the original location of the flag, but ignorant of which, I decided to plant the flag at the common headstone. The volunteers next May could sort it out.
The flag would not go in. The dowel “flagpole” would not even dent the surface. I tried different points of entry in the immediate vicinity. Still no luck. I gave up on this marker and decided to try elsewhere.
One brother’s grave and another brother’s memorial
The surviving inscription commemorates the death of one George W. Gage in an accidental steam locomotive explosion on June 6, 1863 in a Nicholasville, Kentucky rail yard. He served as a private in the Ninth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers. His unit was being repositioned at the time to support Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The stone was also a grave marker for his brother Nathaniel. All that remains of that portion of the monument is a partial name. Genealogical research confirms that the name is indeed Nathaniel. He died in New Hampshire just a few weeks before George was killed in Kentucky. Based on the 1860 Census, with older brother George in the service, Nathaniel may well have been the main support of his parents, and as such exempt from military service. How terrible those weeks in 1863 must have been for the parents, to lose two young adult sons in such rapid succession.
George W. Gage was not named as a casualty in the Louisville (Kentucky) Daily Journal report of the locomotive explosion (which appeared on page 1, column 7 of the June 10th edition; illustrated beside). The Camp Nelson National Cemetery in Nicholasville has many soldiers buried as “unknown,” perhaps George is among them. Also, Frances Dallam Peter, the daughter of the senior Union army surgeon in the area, recorded in her diary that injured soldiers who survived the explosion were sent to nearby Lexington for treatment. Perhaps George’s remains lie anonymously at the National Cemetery in that city. Currently, however, the broken marker in Penacook is the only personal funerary monument he has. This is not unusual. I was also unable to locate gravesites for any of the three men named as fatalities in the newspaper article about the explosion, neither in Kentucky nor in their home states.
An internet trope holds that if something spooky were to happen to a skeptic personally, then the skeptic would embrace the paranormal.
A few days after my original visit to the cemetery, I returned to shoot additional pictures. While I was there, I removed the flag from the Gage monument and took it back over to that family headstone where I’d first tried to plant the flag. I tried there again, just to understand what the problem had been. There was some modest initial resistance, but the flag went in easily after I’d pierced through a thin crust of compressed earth. The task was accomplished without any unusual exertion compared with many other times I’ve replanted flags.
Why had that been so difficult just days before?
I remember that I’d once read the Gage memorial’s inscription during a walk through the cemetery a few years ago. I don’t think I ever knew that Nathaniel was buried there until now. I had no conscious recollection of where in the cemetery the marker was, but conscious isn’t the only kind of recollection. I don’t recall having seen a flag there. (I couldn’t find any dowel hole at the site the other day, either.) If I’d noticed the lack of a flag after I read the inscription, then I’d have felt that it should be remedied. When I recently found myself near the marker with a spare flag, maybe some part of me persuaded another part of me to give up too easily on the first guessed location, to look around, and thus to rediscover George’s inscription, and give him the flag he’d earned.
It would take a different personality than mine to accept that George or Nathaniel or anybody else from some “other side” did something that my own mind would have gladly done on its own. Chance, the ever-present rival conjecture, also had ample opportunity to play its role in my finding the marker again in a timely fashion to do something about its condition. I’ll give a nod to the yellow Lab who set the chain of events in motion, too. Thanks for the call to adventure.
I shall contact the local veteran’s group which handles the Memorial Day flag program for the cemetery. I’ll explain the situation to them and ask that the George W. and Nathaniel Gage Memorial be added to their list of veterans’ sites, so that George will have the recognition he deserves every year from now on.
The restored and expanded memorial text
[Born in 1840; Died May 19, 1863. This is his likely burial place.]
Of Company K, 9th Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers
Killed June 6, 1863
in an explosion of a steam boiler
buried at Nicholasville, Kentucky
Age 26 years, 3 months, 2 days
Sons of Jacob B. & Susan G. Gage
Weep not for us, but weep for yourselves