Our National Cemeteries: Gettysburg National Cemetery: experiencing Old Home Week among the Maine lads

Within the Gettysburg National Cemetery spreads the small lot I consider most sacred among all the national cemeteries I have visited. It’s one among the 22 sections semi-circling the Soldiers’ National Monument. It’s Section 15, identified by a squat granite marker inscribed “Maine. 104 bodies.”

Here lie men with surnames that, except for “Unknown,” remain familiar in the Pine Tree State to this day. In fact, at least some Section 15 surnames still appear in the thin 21st-century phone books issued by phone companies. Yes, the phone-book concept lives on where landlines exist in Maine!

She was a small place population-wise in 1861. While its population has slightly more than doubled these past 163 years, Maine still remains a small place. Beyond the “big cities” to which immigrants flow, countless families have remained in place (or close by) since the Civil War. The surnames have survived, and many are found at Gettysburg.

A dandelion brightens the Gettysburg National Cemetery grave of W. H. Smith, 17th Maine Infantry Regiment. One of 104 soldiers buried in the Maine section, Smith had a surname still common in the Pine Tree State in the 21st century. (Brian Swartz)

Beyond that engraved Section 15 marker, seven rows (called “sections” by Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon in 1864) arc outwards toward the north and Baltimore Street. The Michigan boys lie immediately to the west in Section 16, the grouped “unknowns” immediately to the east in Section 14.

The contractor buried in Section 15 soldiers belonging to Maine-raised units; other Mainers may lie with the unknowns or in Section 13 with the Army regulars. Maine’s seven rows are designated A to G, back to front, and each row’s graves are numbered from 1 on the far right to the ending number on the far left.

Similar letter and numerical designations apply to the rows and graves in the 21 other sections in the Soldiers’ National Monument semi-circle.

Maine’s seven rows gradually shrink in grave capacity from A to G. Row A contains 18 bodies, B has 17, C has 16, and rows D and E shelter 14 heroes apiece. In Row F lie 13 bodies, in G another 12.

Although “Unknown” identifies too many Mainers, as I walk among these lads from home, I always marvel at the familiar surnames. There’s Ruel Nickerson of the 19th Maine; Nickersons are still here, spread across Maine, and new generations bear that surname. I can rattle off three Nickersons I have known for years.

There’s Frank Coffin, another 19th Mainer. His is a common Maine surname in the 2020s. Ditto the 19th Maine’s Charles J. Carroll and George E. Hodgdon, who if they stepped alive into 2024 Maine would feel right at home among other Carrolls and Hodgdons.

So would Edward Cunningham, 1st Maine Cavalry. My third-grade teacher was Mrs. Cunningham, and I have met more Cunninghams as the decades passed.

There’s Joseph D. Simpson, 20th Maine. I know Simpsons in Down East Maine; other Simpsons are scattered across the state. There’s M. Quint, 17th Maine: Anyone hailing from southern Aroostook County recognizes that popular surname.

Two 3rd Maine Infantry lads buried side by side are Henry S. Small and John W. Jones. You will trip over a Small or a Jones just about everywhere in Maine. Here lies a Smith (7th Maine), there a Davis and a Rand (both 17th Maine); the first two surnames are as common as winter snow, and Rand is a Bangor-area surname.

Carey, Hogan, Thomas, and others: Visiting the Maine boys at Gettysburg is like participating in Old Home Week, their surnames are known so well.

1 Response to Our National Cemeteries: Gettysburg National Cemetery: experiencing Old Home Week among the Maine lads

  1. This is a lovely tribute to the thousands of soldiers Walt Whitman referred to by the category “that significant word UNKNOWN.”

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