Florida pair repairs markers at Soldiers’ Rest

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2001

William Blackwelder, using a shovel and stick, straightens a headstone to make a symmetrical row in the Soldiers’ Rest section of Cedar Hill Cemetery Wednesday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[07/05/01] William and Sharon Blackwelder of Bushnell, Fla., say every veteran deserves to have a well-maintained final resting place and that’s how they spent their Fourth of July holiday.

The Blackwelders have what some might consider a strange idea for how to spend their vacation, but after seeing the condition of many of the markers at Soldiers’ Rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery, the Florida couple made plans to spend two weeks in Vicksburg repairing, straightening and replacing headstones as needed.

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“We think they deserve this and we’re going to do what we can,” William Blackwelder said as he surveyed the rows of headstones marking the site where nearly 700 Civil War soldiers are buried.

Until about 25 years ago, the graves of the men who fought for the South were not marked. Congress, however, was convinced by historical organizations to appropriate money for the markers under a federal law saying all veterans get a headstone.

So, using shovels of different shapes and sizes and generating a lot of sweat, the Blackwelders spent last week and most of this week lining up hundreds of the stones that had settled over the years. Using another device of his own design, William Blackwelder jacked up markers that had sunk, some leaving only a few inches above the ground, and filled in with dirt underneath.

“These men fought for what they believed, right or wrong,” William Blackwelder said. “And they deserve to have a monument standing in their memory, upright and clean.”

The nearly 17,000 graves, most of them Union dead, in the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery a few miles from Cedar Hill are maintained by employees at the federal park. In city-owned Cedar Hill, grass is cut by contract employees, but tombstone maintenance is up to families, friends or fraternal organizations or vacationers from Florida.

Some of the markers were chipped along the top edges. Others had been broken into two pieces and glued back together. The Blackwelders replaced 42 broken markers with new ones provided by the Department of Memorial Affairs, a division of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

William Blackwelder, who works for the Florida National Cemetery, a division of the Department of Veteran Affairs, approached city officials about undertaking the task after visiting the cemetery last year.

“It just tore our hearts out,” William Blackwelder said.

The Blackwelders provided the labor, tools and supplies to work on the graves of not just Confederate veterans, but others up through the war in Vietnam. No tax dollars were spent beyond the cost of the replacement markers.

Still, Sharon Blackwelder said they will take home something important. “They fought for me and they didn’t even know me,” she said. “They gave me their best; why not give them mine?”

William Blackwelder said they have two similar projects planned when they return to Florida. One question he said they encountered most often was why start in Vicksburg.

“We had to start somewhere,” was his response.