Volunteer student welders and Civil War history buffs team up to restore the grave markers of local Union soldiers.
By Kristi Kates | Nov. 4, 2017
The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. A year after its end, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) formed to helped link and advocate for veterans of the Union army, marines, navy, and cutter service (which would become the U.S. Coast Guard). The GAR dissolved in 1956, after the death of its last member, Albert Woolson. But its successor, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), lives on today.
And that’s where Jeff Morse — and the final resting places of our local Civil War veterans — comes in.
“Years ago, I took a civil war history class at the college and found it really interesting,” said Morse, an adjunct electrical program instructor at Northwest Michigan College. “So I got involved with the SUVCW organization here in town.”
Morse has several ancestors who were in the Civil War: a great-great-great grandfather, a great-great grandfather, and four great-great uncles.
“They’re all from Ohio. Most of them ended up living in the Traverse City area, moving up here after the war in search of free land,” Morse said. “It was mostly uninhabited up here, and from what I understand, through the land grant process they could get something like 160 acres.”
Through his Civil War interest and his involvement with the SUVCW, Morse soon noticed that many of the Civil War grave markers/flag holders at cemeteries around the region had fallen into disrepair.
“I’d noticed for years the markers were getting rusty and many were being broken, but we were unsure what we could do about it,” he said. “We eventually found a bunch of them in a pile at one site and finally decided that we had to do something.”
SUVCW’s local camp — aka Robert Finch Camp No. 14 — appealed to the national SUVCW office and were approved to remove the damaged markers, fix them, and then replace them.
“Following specific protocols, of course,” Morse added.
But the group soon discovered that the markers were damaged in a couple of different ways. Morse and his colleague at the SUVCW, war memorials officer Scott Schwander, first got their team working on the main portion of the markers themselves – the five-pointed cast iron stars.
“Each star marker is emblazoned with all five battle units of the Grand Army of the Republic: engineering, navy, infantry, cavalry, artillery, plus a little cannon on the top point of the star that can hold a small American flag,” Morse said.
His team is now restoring each marker, first cleaning them with a phosphoric acid solution to remove the rust, then painting them with a primer, then black paint, then a clear coat.
Holding each marker into the ground are two cast-iron stakes. Over the years many have been broken, from lawn mowing or simply from being knocked over. Broken stakes were a problem that the local branch of the SUVCW didn’t have the means to repair.
So Morse approached NMC welding technology program coordinator and instructor Devan DePauw to see if he could help.
“We weren’t really able to add anything to our educational program to assist with this project, but we were happy to look for volunteers,” DePauw said.
Several student volunteers are now working on restoring the cast iron stakes.
“Cast iron is a notoriously frustrating metal,” DePauw said. “It has an inconsistent composition and can be very brittle. If you heat it up and cool it too quickly, it can crack. Most of these stars had two stakes but have had one or the other broken off. We cut the remaining stake off, and we’re brazing the cast iron with bronze and mounting a new stake in the middle, doing our best to keep the integrity of the design.”
Two of the students who have volunteered to work on the markers are Ries van der Grijn, a first-year student in the associate of applied science in the welding technology program, and his classmate, Michael Stolarczyk, also a first-year in the same program.
“I just thought this would be a good opportunity to help the community and also good practice for my welding career,” van der Grijn said. “I wasn’t used to working with the cast iron, but as a lot of the pieces of these markers are broken, and it’s our job to weld them back together, I got better at it. Then I realized I also get to help restore the memories of all these men.”
Stolarczyk had similar sentiments. “I’ve always been into history, and I also like the idea of doing something that’s going to last,” he said. “These markers were originally made by people who were alive long before me — that’s what’s really hitting me about this project.”
The volunteers meet at the welding technology building most Saturdays and say they’re looking forward to going to see where the restored markers are installed. Most of the 30 or so markers they’ve worked on so far are from Traverse City’s Oakwood Cemetery.
“We all come here to the classroom every Saturday. I buy donuts, and we get to work,” DePauw said. “I’ve always been a sentimental person, so I was glad to help when Jeff asked.”
“I think it’s unfortunate when things that are critical threads to the fabric of our history are neglected or forgotten. The students are doing it because they see a good cause that they want to support, and I appreciate the opportunity to get students involved in a community project. The more people realize that we’re all part of a larger community, the better off we’ll all be.”
Some weeks, four or five markers get repaired; other weeks a dozen. Each star is 8 inches across and 16 to 18 inches high. And there are hundreds out there in need of attention.
“I’m pretty sure this will be a long-term project,” DePauw added.
While the SUVCW’s service area range extends from Cadillac all the way to Mackinaw, the majority of the markers they’ve got in mind for repair are in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, and Kalkaska counties.
“Those alone could easily exceed 500 to 600 total,” Morse said. “So this isn’t a project that will be completed overnight. But it’s a rewarding project, because one of the things we do at the SUVCW is help keep the memory ‘green’ of the veterans of the civil war. I’ve never been in the military, but I am very patriotic, so this is me doing my part to keep up the veterans’ dedication to our country.”
Morse pointed out that after the work is completed on the 150-year-old markers, they’ll likely last for another 150 years.
“For the next generation to see them — that’s all I want,” he said.