Call him equal parts detective and caretaker of the forgotten Civil War soldiers whose final resting place is beneath the soil of East Tennessee.
For Richard Holmes, grave registration officer with the Camp Major William A. McTeer No. 39 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, it’s important to locate the unmarked graves and replace faded gravestones of these soldiers who in some cases died as a youth or whose bravery demands more of us than a lost place under a shade tree.
His territory takes him from Blount County and into Loudon, Monroe, McMinn and Roane counties. In East Tennessee since 2006, he’s uncovered over 100 forgotten Union soldier graves and replaced close to 30 worn-out stones.
“Those are my primary areas,” Holmes said of the listed counties. “But if I run into a soldier in Ohio, I will register him also.”
The ultimate goal is to register all Union soldiers, Holmes said. That information then could be attached to the Find a Grave project online.
The standard marker for the Union soldier, he explained, was made of marble and tended to fade over the years. “The guys who died in the 1880s and ‘90s are obviously worse,” he said. “Also, if the wind is hitting it directly at the cemetery, it will fade faster.”
As to why there aren’t descendants to serve as caretakers, many move away from the area or don’t even know they have roots that deep in the community, he said.
“Sadly, most people couldn’t even tell you the name of their great-grandfather in this country,” Homes said.
An employee of Delta with a few years left before retirement, Holmes does his work on his off time and as a volunteer. He moved here from Georgia and lives in Sweetwater.
Teamwork with the East Tennessee History Center and Gay Morton have provided Holmes with lots of cases to solve. Morton recently contacted him about a Union soldier reportedly buried in Maryville’s Magnolia Cemetery. She wasn’t sure, but asked Holmes to investigate.
He in turn, asked a coworker if she might be able to traipse the cemetery since she lived nearby, and she obliged. This friend found a stone that looked to be a military marker but was illegible.
She poured water on it and said she could read the letter K. She was in search of the gravestone of Capt. William H. Kirk.
“The man who oversees the cemetery said it wasn’t even listed in the cemetery because it couldn’t be read,” Holmes explained. After some cleaning of the stone, it revealed who is buried beneath: Capt. William H. Kirk.
Holmes then began the work to see that a new stone was erected. That took place days ago. It is us, the taxpayers who foot the bill, Holmes said, because a veteran’s benefits never expire. He set up an account to raise money for the other expenses of having the new grave marker installed.
It’s not just about getting a new stone placed. Holmes researches all he can about the Civil War soldier for whom he has become temporary caretaker. He learned that Kirk was born in 1845 in Greeneville, but died in Blount County in 1889. He enlisted at the age of 19 and was wounded at Indian Creek; the young soldier had to have one of his legs amputated. Kirk also owned a watch repair shop in Maryville and served as postmaster general.
Over time, Holmes has visited numerous graveyards in Blount and beyond. He said those in Millers Cove and also at Four Mile Baptist are some recent ones.
Now that Capt. William H. Kirk has a new stone, Holmes is on to the next case. The soldier’s name is Caleb S. Hughes, the detective said. He was a Confederate at first but got captured by the Union Army and held in prison in Chicago. He then switched sides to later fight for the Union.
Magnolia Cemetery is the supposed location of his burial. There is no stone.
The Sons of Union Veterans has camps like Blount County’s Camp Major William A. McTeer across the country. The organization was organized in 1881 and came out of the Grand Army of the Republic, Holmes said. The GAR formed after the Civil War and was responsible for veterans getting pensions and benefits.
Because Congress recognized SUVCW as a legitimate successor from GAR, Holmes can order a military marker for a veteran without permission from a family member, much like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion. He works with the Veterans Administration to secure the markers.
Holmes said he grew up in Baltimore and remembers trips with his family to see Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg, Antietam and Vicksburg. His memories of those visits and the intrigue they produced have not waned over time.
It is a bit more of a challenge to do this work to register Union Civil War soldiers in Tennessee than it was on the East Coast, he said.
“Up there, they are basically looking at Union soldiers,” Holmes explained. “Here, I have to try and determine if they are Confederate or Union.”
East Tennessee was mostly Union. Holmes said Blount County sided 80% with the North. But in some cases in this area, brothers fought on opposite sides.
While he didn’t serve in the military, his ancestors did, including his father. “This is my way of giving back,” Holmes said.