Montgomery County

Grave cleaning marks Civil War anniversary

Montgomery County is home to history stretching back to long before the Revolution.

Montgomery County is home to history stretching back to long before the Revolution.

The Civil War might seem like a recent part of it, but this week, in honor of its 150th anniversary, three historic organizations have banded together to hold three Civil War memorial events.

“I’m a cemetery guy,” said Fulton County Historian Ryan Weitz. “I could tell the story of the world from a hole in the ground.”

Weitz, who at just 20 is possibly the youngest cemetery expert in the country, is in charge of the first event. Wednesday evening he’ll be teaching a class on the proper care and cleaning of grave stones at Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam.

After a short demonstration, students will try their hand on the headstones of the Civil War Circle. The graves of 13 men who died in battle ring a huge spire, then the graves of roughly 50 more who served but died after the war make a second circle around the lot.

At a glance it’s obvious the stones could use a good scrub.

“Over the past 150 years, they’ve collected their share of moss, lichen, everything under the sun,” he said.

In the interest of preservation, the markers need to stay relatively clean, but that’s not a simple job.

Weitz said grave stone cleaning is a fine balance between preserving and damaging. Scrub too hard and the stone will actually erode, but leave the stone as is, and the pervasive roots of mosses and lichens will break up the surface.

“You have to really look at the stone. It can take a while to get to know it,” he said. “You have to ask, if I clean it will I do more harm than good?”

His personal grave stone cleaning maxim is “don’t use anything you wouldn’t use on yourself,” which disqualifies wire brushes and bleach.

Ordinary water is always fine, and a credit card is good for scraping off moss. After that, normal non-ionized soap is acceptable, as is an ammonia solution to kill organic material.

“The way we bury our dead says a lot about our society,” he said, adding that today’s rows of polished stones and purchased funerals mark a cultural separation from death unlike the old days, when funerals were held inside homes.

As an experienced grave historian, Weitz can also tell a lot from the Civil War Circle. The inner ring of 13 graves are marked with identical, equally spaced granite stones, implying the grave diggers knew how many they were burying, and had time to carve headstones from one of the hardest possible materials.

“At these battles, often thousands of men died,” he said. “They didn’t have time to ship bodies home. They had to get after the opposing forces.”

Most of the men in the inner ring at Green Hill had to be dug from mass graves long after the fighting stopped.

It’s a hard reminder of the realities of war, as is the next in the line of events.

Friday night Old Fort Johnson will host Voices of the Civil War, an event featuring readings from soldiers’ firsthand accounts of battles handed down in letters and journal entries. To accurately capture the period vibe, the old letters will be read by candlelight during tours of the old fort.

“Of all the events we do, Voices is my favorite,” said Alessa Wylie, Fort Johnson Museum coordinator.

If the candlelight is too creepy for the kids, the last event will take place in broad daylight Saturday afternoon at The Montgomery County Department of History and Archives in Fonda.

Camp Mohawk Day is designed to give families an idea of what life was like in 1862, when the camp was bustling with young men being trained for battle in the South. Mark Silo will speak on the 115th New York State Regiment of volunteers who trained at Camp Mohawk, the subject of his book.

William Frueh, a blind Civil War re-enactor and traditional musician, will perform period music with his band Rural Felicity.

While there is plenty of other history in Montgomery County, over the next few days, these events will honor those who died to keep the country whole.

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