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Beneath the starry flag

Veterans of 20th-century wars honor graves of soldiers who shaped history of America

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

By Jane Miller

When we think of veterans buried on the lands where they fought, we usually envision cross-covered fields in Europe.

But the soldiers who fought in the two wars that most clearly defined the course of this country are buried on American soil, and a number of individuals and groups work regularly to ensure their graves, along with those of other veterans, are not forgotten.

Among the groups that have made sure flags will be flying atop those graves when Flag Day is celebrated Friday -- as well as all through the year -- is American Legion Post 161 in Wexford.

Each year, members of the post head out shortly before Memorial Day to place flags on the graves of veterans, some of which no longer have markers. They check the graves periodically through the year to make sure each still has a flag.

This year, John Gerhard of Franklin Park, commander of the post, joined a group of mostly World War II veterans on May 21 in placing flags on more than 300 veterans' graves in about 100 small church cemeteries, mostly in the northern suburbs.

He started his day at the Hiland Presbyterian Church cemetery on Perry Avenue in Ross, where two veterans' graves are about 200 years old.

"I was in awe and very surprised to learn a few years ago that we have several Revolutionary War soldiers buried around here," he said. "It makes sense, though. I understand that following the war, many of the soldiers were paid with land grants to our area. We were the frontier."

The post will burn the old, weather-beaten flags in a ceremony July 8.

Revolutionary War graves aren't that common here, though.

In addition to those in the Hiland church yard, perhaps the most well-known ones are in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, which dates back to 1845 and has a special section for veterans. The graves of Revolutionary War soldiers were moved there from two Downtown church cemeteries.

Revolutionary War soldiers also are buried in Chartiers Hill Church Cemetery in Canonsburg, Lebanon Presbyterian Church cemetery in West Mifflin and Beulah Presbyterian Church cemetery in Churchill, which has about 30 such graves. A few more are in private cemeteries and family crypts.

Civil War graves are more common. Thousands can be found throughout the area, said Kerin Shallenbarger, a reference librarian at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

"You'll find Civil War soldiers buried in almost any old cemetery. There are even two Civil War soldiers buried at the Dixmont Hospital site, which is being considered for a Wal-Mart -- another thing to add to the controversy," she said.

The graves for some Confederate soldiers are in Northern states because some of those who fought for the South moved here following the Civil War. A few Confederate soldiers died while in a federal prison that once stood on the grounds of the National Aviary on the North Side. Eight Confederate soldiers are buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Two more graves were recently discovered at the Beaver Cemetery in Vanport.

Last month, seminarian Tommy Allen of Ambridge, who is chaplain for the Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead Camp 1960 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, conducted a graveside service at the cemetery in Vanport. A bugler played "Taps."

Bill Irons, a retired Ambridge schoolteacher, represented the Sons of Union Veterans as the color guard carried Confederate battle flags as well as the U.S. flag.

"Whenever we find a [Confederate] grave around here, we conduct a service," said Don Steele of Cranberry, a founding member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp. One of his great-grandfathers fought for the South.

"What we're doing is preserving history. It's getting lost today," Steele said. His group, however, always has to explain itself, he said.

"We are a history and genealogy group who honor our veterans. We are nothing more and nothing less. You won't find members of our group standing on a street corner saying derogatory things. If you see a group cutting grass around a tombstone, that's us," he said.

Some of the members of the Confederate organization also belong to Sons of Union Veterans.

Bill Hubbs, of Neville Island, is a member of both. His great-grandfather, William Nicholson, a Union soldier, is buried in Union Dale Cemetery on the North Side.

"The grave is always well taken care of. There are always flowers on the grave, but we don't know who is doing it. We don't know if there are any Nicholsons left," he said.

His family doesn't know yet where another great-grandfather, who fought for the South, is buried. "That's my project. I'm working on it," he said.

"It's not a Yankee-Rebel thing anymore," Steele said. "We need to stand together to preserve our history. We need to lift people up. The Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers defined the identity of our nation. We need to remember their courage. Remember their faith."

Jane Miller is a free-lance writer.

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