“they’re not strangers… and they stay as they lay…”

Posted on September 13, 2011 by


There’s something that struck me long ago, while watching Last of the Mohicans (the newest version), but not necessarily in relation to that time period. Specifically, I’m talking about the marking or remarking of graves of Civil War soldiers. We see it often, in instances where folks, today, wish to mark the graves of people from the past who have either no marker for their grave, or whose marker has become unreadable, or even disappeared over time.

But, back to the movie, for just a bit…

The first scene is the one where Hawkeye’s entourage comes upon the devastation at the cabin of close friends. Cora Munro commences to rebuke Hawkeye for not giving the people a proper burial.

Hawkeye counters her with the comment “… they’re not strangers… and they stay as they lay…”

Of course, this is only part of the explanation. Later on, Hawkeye provides more detail…

“Anyone looking for a trail would see it [the burial] as a sign that we passed that way”
Cora responds, “You knew them well?”

Here’s the thing. Take a Confederate soldier about whom you know only what you see in his service record. You have nothing to make clear his sentiments or his reasoning behind the decisions that he made. No diary, no letters, nothing more than what you see in service records. You know nothing apart from the fact that he served between one date and another, the notations, perhaps, that he was sick and/or wounded at some point, or various points. By marking his grave as a Confederate, therefore, do you project more about what you want to see than what the man who was the soldier wished to be remembered for?

“Anyone looking for a trail would see it as a sign that we passed that way.”

Indeed. Let’s say the man has a headstone. It may be hard to read, but at any place in that headstone do we see any remarks about service as a Confederate soldier? For that matter, is there even mention of this service in his obituary? Was he proud of this service? How do you know? Does the absence of mention in the obituary project another meaning? Perhaps he wished the past to remain the past. In many cases, you really don’t know.

If he left no evidence that he wished to be remembered by his service, by marking the grave as a Confederate, do you leave what you do, more as a sign that you “passed that way”, and that your trail says more about you than the man in the grave?

Washington John Irvin Cave's Confederate headstone, in Page County, Virginia. Just one example of where more is projected in a headstone than what was the reality of the man in that war. A member of the famed "Stonewall Brigade", was he really a devoted "Confederate"? Who ordered the headstone and why? Did they not know his story?

For more about W.J.I. Cave, see this blog post that I wrote, back in 2008.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important in this day to mark the burial sites of folks. Removal of cemeteries for modern convenience has become too convenient… and it’s truly sad. By all means, fork out the money necessary to replace a headstone, or place a new one, based on what appears to be the way the man, not you, wanted to be remembered. As for those free and convenient VA headstones… It’s obvious to me that it’s become too convenient for some to mark graves of Civil War soldiers with free headstones from the Veterans Administration… and honestly, not so much to do justice to the man in the grave, but rather, to project a modern agenda through the headstone.

A stamp, an envelope, and a copy of a service record = viola! A devoted Confederate soldier!

Or, even worse…

A stamp, an envelope, and… what else (?) in the way of “evidence” has equaled… viola! An instant, true and devoted “Black Confederate!”

The lesson is, don’t leave the “trail” of others tainted with your markings. Perhaps it’s best if the dead really do… “stay as they lay”, and you find another means to identify your interpretation in another venue, away from the grave, stating clearly that it is nothing more than your interpretation, as to who these people were and what they believed.

I’m finding that these conveniently free Veterans Administration stones, used for Civil War soldiers, are all too frequently projecting far more than they should.