Last year, the nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. This momentous occasion, in which over 600,000 individuals lost their lives, profoundly affected New York State as well as the still young nation. New York State not only contributed the most of the northern states, but also paid dearly with the loss of over 50,000 soldiers according to the New York State Military Museum.
The graves of some of those soldiers who died in the Civil War, as well as those who served during the war, are scattered in many cemeteries throughout Ulster County. Some are in far corners of large cemeteries that were once smaller; others are located off of major roadways back in woods which have been long forgotten – enter Laura Smith, President of the Veterans Grave Preservation Association.
Smith, a transplant from Brooklyn and now a resident of Wawarsing, conducted some research on a Civil War veteran who, at 23 years of age, died in the Battle of Gettysburg. When she decided to go to the Leurenkill Cemetery in Ellenville in order to visit the fallen ieutenant’s grave, she was shocked at the state of the grave and those of other Civil War veterans in the cemetery.
Her feeling at the time could be summed up from a line in President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” She clearly felt that this man’s grave had all but been forgotten. When she started investigating other cemeteries that were deemed “abandoned or older,” Mrs. Smith found the same issue with respect to veterans’ grave. A woman with a deep connection to both history and her country, this was unacceptable to her. Smith quickly found that righting this wrong was a daunting task.
Maintaining and preserving older or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds has become a contentious issue in New York State. There are many of these cemeteries around Ulster County and the state. Once a cemetery has been deemed abandoned, the local municipality becomes responsible for the care of the grounds by law. However, according to a lawsuit brought by the Fire Place History Club against the Town of Brookhaven on Long Island (which the group won), the State of New York only orders local municipalities to perform minimal maintenance on these deserted grounds. This minimal maintenance consists of mowing the grass and removing brush and weeds, sometimes as little as twice a year. In addition, the municipalities have to maintain the integrity of any fences.
During these financially strapped times, local governments are finding funds stressed to the limits. Sometimes these burying grounds are placed on the back burner. “For me this was unacceptable,” Smith stated, “because some of these older grounds needed so much more than just a snip of the green. Trees were down and stones had toppled over during Mother Nature’s onslaught.” This is an obvious reference to the hurricane and flooding that hit Ulster County quite hard in the summer of 2011. The early snow storm of October 2011 also took down many trees and branches. She continued: “We all know how the winters can be up here in the Catskills.”
This is not a unique issue facing Ellenville or even Ulster County. Oyster Bay, also on Long Island, has faced the same issues as Brookhaven. However, hoping to avoid lawsuits compelling them to maintain the old burying grounds, Oyster Bay has taken the lead by instituting a portion of New York State Law governing abandoned cemeteries. They have started to organize volunteer groups to upkeep these grounds, like Mrs. Smith has, and have encouraged other groups to adopt cemeteries, much like the Adopt a Highway program, with the town acting as liaison by offering advice and resources. The Supervisor of the Town of Oyster Bay explained that under New York State Law, these groups can range from church groups to the Boy Scouts.
Smith is a member of the Ulster County Civil War Roundtable and she works at the Ellenville Public Library and Museum. She works closely with Dick Constant, a Vietnam Veteran, as well as a Legionnaire at the Cook Taylor Post in Ellenville. They both do this honorable work strictly as volunteers with the help of other volunteers, and the assistance of the Town of Wawarsing. Her mission has expanded to not only include veterans of the Civil War, but all veterans’ graves in Ellenville and the Town of Wawarsing. She also has started documenting the lives of these veterans as well.
Smith and her cadre of volunteers not only maintain the graves of the veterans, but also ensure that a flag is placed on each grave for Memorial Day. The society heavily depends on donations of money, skills, and good old fashioned manual labor.
Photo: Above, a volunteer fixes a headstone (Courtesy Laura Smith); Below, Civil War Veterans in front of the Methodist Church on Canal Street. Believed to be circa 1905-1912. Photo by A. V. Porter, Ellenville, NY. If you have information that might help identify the men in this photo, please leave a comment below.
Laura Smith says
The man in the 1st photo is Joe Ferannini owner of Gravestone Matters resetting a tabletstone. He came to the area in conjunction with the Ellenville Public Library & Museum program on May 12 2011. Thank you Adam for the mention, what we do is worth the time and rewards. Each soldier deserves nothing less than our attention and courtesy.
Great work Laura, and great article about this important heritage. Mr.Ferannini’s visit to Ellenville was sponsored by the Greater Hudson Heritage Network’s “Stone Strategies” program, funded by the Greenway of the HRV National Heritage Area & NYSCA.
to view additional information see:
My great, great , grandfather Philip Briggs is buried in the Leurenkill Cemetery in Ellenville. Sanford Briggs, a Civil War Veteran is buried next to his father Philip Briggs. I visited the cemetery in 2011 and took photos. The cemetery looked well maintained and flags were placed by all the Civil War Veterans graves. 2 of my grandfather’s brothers are buried there. Thank you for maintaining this old cemetery.
My family owned property in Wawarsing. I remember growing up as a kid and going thru the mountains and hills on the property. We came across some grave stones. Would it be possible that soldiers could be buried there ? Or where all soldiers buried in cemeteries. I am going back many many years ago. Just curious of your thoughts on this.
Christopher K. Philippo says
Nick, yes many soldiers were buried in small family cemeteries, not just religious, non-profit, or municipal cemeteries.
A. J. Schenkman says
There is an excellent resource by Poucher and Terwilliger. They located and documented many small cemeteries. There are many such burial grounds with soldiers buried in them. You might be know the one on Route 209 and Carlo Drive in Kerhonkson. In places like New Paltz, when the New Paltz Rural Cemetery was created, the bodies were dug up and moved. I hope this helps.
Gloria Thompson says
In photo of Civil War Veterans in Ellenville, NY- there were some veterans from Sullivan County in that photo also.
Second row- left end is William Alonzo Briggs- who owned Briggs’ General Store in Claryville. He was a successful businessman-sold farm machinery, farm animals, besides operating 2 saw mills, manufacturing furniture, piano keys, wood hoops, wood products. He owned over 1000 acres of land- much of which he sold to the state of NY and is part of the Catskill State park. He was a member of the 143rd NY Volunteers Regiment – Company C in the Civil War. He was the brother of my great grandmother Adella Briggs Ackerley Sheeley Herman. She outlived 3 husbands and lived to age of 108 1/2- her 2nd husband was postmaster of Bull Run- name changed to Peekamose in 1904- but it was Adella who actually operated the Peekamose Post Office for 12 years- longer period of time than any of the other postmasters of Bull Run/ Peekamose.
In Civil war veterans photo- man in front row- 3rd from left end- is Captain Isaac Jeliffs also of the 143rd Sullivan County Regiment – who resided in Hasbrouck, NY