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An African American Union Army soldier gets a headstone for the first time

a row of headstones marches off into the distance on the right. On the left, a leaf-strewn grassy patch and more headstones in the distance. The GAR headstones have small American flags next to them
Jalen Williams

Private Enoch Robinson was a part of the 15th U.S Colored Infantry Regiment. Now Robinson’s grave in Vicksburg has a marker, courtesy of the group the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The SUVCW’s Michigan chapter has arranged for dozens of Union veterans’ graves to be marked for the first time, and volunteers also clean the stones to help preserve them.

SUVCW member Gary Swain and I first went to Riverview Cemetery in Kalamazoo to talk about the group’s work.

“This is the GAR lot, the Grand Army of the Republic,” he says, as we arrive at a wooded lawn dotted with markers.

The GAR, Swain says, "was the first veterans’ organization in the country; it was formed by Civil War veterans after the Civil War.”

Swain’s organization acts as an extension of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The marker is a grey stone, lightly arched across the top. An American flag is planted to the left. In the background, the lawn of the cemetery
Credit Jalen Williams / WMUK
Private Enoch Robinson's grave in Vicksburg, with pennies left on top as a sign of respect.

“As you see, most of the stones in this lot are relatively new. We put in over 70 grave stones in the last 30 years here for soldiers who died, who were buried here but never got a gravestone.”

Swain says it can take a while to get a marker for a veteran’s grave.

“We had to go back and do genealogical research on every one of them to prove that they were in fact veterans,” he explained, adding that many veterans buried without a grave marker “didn't have any family members or weren't from the area when they passed away.”

“Many of them were indigent. Quite a number of them were in the State Hospital up on Oakland Drive,” he said. “They didn't know what PTSD was back then,” he added.

Private Enoch Robinson, who served in the 15th U.S Colored Infantry Regiment, is among those who only recently got a marker.

“Enoch was from southern Ohio and enlisted actually in northern Tennessee and most of his tenure in the service was in the Tennessee area,” Swain said.

Robinson is buried not in Riverside, but in the GAR lot at Schoolcraft Township Cemetery in Vicksburg. Passing away 130 years ago, Robinson’s lack of a grave marker was brought to the attention of the SUV by a resident. Swain I went to Vicksburg to see Robinson’s gravestone.

As we talked I noticed pennies were left on the headstone. Swain told me pennies represent giving respect to the soldier who passed. Leaving a penny behind, I followed him to another marker while he got ready to show me how to properly clean a gravestone.

Swain starts by brushing the stone lightly to remove any grass clippings. He then examines the stone and notices some biofilm.

“That could be algae, moss, a variety of living things that we clean off, and to do that we take a plastic scraper – never use metal anything to clean a gravestone – and just scrape it off.”

Swain says metals cause too much friction and will damage the stone. After applying water and brushing with a stiff brush multiple times, he applies the cleaner and scrubs again.

“It's a combination of cleaner and biocide. It helps get into the pores a bit and helps kill algae and moss and so on,” he said. 

A man in a dark, long-sleeved shirt kneels by a low gravestone. Cleaning supplies are to his right
Credit Jalen Williams / WMUK
The SUVCW's Gary Swain demonstrates how to clean a gravestone without damaging it.

Swain scrubs the cleaner in a circular motion to avoid streaks. Then he uses chopsticks to dig into the lettering to get residue out.

I asked Swain why he does what he does.

“Most historians that specialize in American history recognize the Civil War is probably the single most important event that's happened in American history. It has such a profound effect on what our country is today,” he told me.

As for why it’s important for people today to remember the Civil War: “It kept our country united and free. It ended a quarter millennial of chattel slavery in this country, and it kept this country united,” Swain said.

“We are a single entity,” he continued. “That's just part of what the Civil War did. I think this is a way of reinforcing that in Americans. History is something that should be taught constantly.”

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