Monday, October 01, 2012

Father and son reunion

That cemetery tour late Sunday afternoon turned out great. We had a crowd that if not a record was close, wonderful presenters and beautiful weather. Good pumpkin bars, cookies and lemonade, too --- but I forgot the camera.

Well, I remembered to take the camera to the museum, then forgot to take it farther. By the time that occurred to me, we were aboard a bus loaded with 60 people headed for Douglass Cemetery, and it didn't seem like a good idea to ask the driver to turn around.

One of our guests was a truck driver from Florida, who having delivered a load of groceries to one of the Hy-Vee warehouses was cooling her heels at the truckstop waiting for her mandatory rest period to expire. She had walked up to tour the museum earlier in the day --- and came back for the tour. That was great, too. 

The award for valor goes to Historic Preservation Commission member Martin, who had been up all night helping to deal with the aftermath of a tragic car crash just west of town late Saturday that killed three Ottumwa women.

I took these photos later Sunday evening while back at Douglass Cemetery to reclaim one of the flags we use during these annual tours to indicate gravesites.

The two neighborly tombstones here reflect one of those serendipitous occurrances related to the tour. Our featured Lucas County Civil War soldier at Douglass was Oliver W. Coffman, a saddler with the First Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, who had been sent home critically ill from the Arkansas front during the late fall of 1863. He died the day after Christmas and somehow much of his flag-topped tombstone survived the century of abandonment that this pioneer cemetery had been subjected to.

When Oliver left home in the fall of 1862, his youngest son --- Oliver Jr. --- was under a year old. We knew that "Olie" had died, too, because his small tombstone had been inventoried perhaps 70 years ago when a list of inscriptions on fallen stones that could be found then at the abandoned cemetery was made. But the stone had vanished by the time the wreckage was cleared after the turn of the 21st century and such stones as could be found were gathered.

This year, a number of damaged trees were cleared from the east end of the cemetery and the little tombstone turned up while stumps were being removed. It's lost it's top, so the name "Olie" that was evident when that earlier inventory was taken, is no longer evident. But father and son now have been reunited. The date of death had been misinterpreted in that early inventory. So now we know, too, that the little boy died April 20, 1864, only a few months after his father --- representing a double tragedy for wife and mother, Elizabeth J. (Ross) Coffman.

Sunday evening, I went back to PBS online and watched again the American Experience documentary "Death and the Civil War." There's no guarantee that this link will work for long, by the way.

The theme of the documentary is fact that both Union and Confederate states entered the Civil War not expecting and totally unprepared for death on the scale the war brought. The Battle of Antietam, for example --- fought on September 17, 1862 --- claimed 6,500 lives and remains the bloodiest day in American history.

Neither side had any plan in place to collect the bodies of the dead, identify them, bury them or to notify loved ones. As a result, in many instances during the opening years of the war, bodies were left exposed on battlefields for days or weeks --- and in some cases lost entirely. The bodies of thousands, collected and buried later, remain identified only as "unknown."

So in that sense, Chariton's Coffman family --- despite the tragic loss of husband and father, was fortunate to at least have a body to bury.


We're off early today for a museums association meeting at the Icarian Settlement historic site near Corning. This time, I'm going to remember to take the camera along!

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