Thomas Ray can rest easy — new friends have improved his grave site.
Ray was a 21-year-old Albany soldier who died during the Civil War in 1863. He was buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, and 150 years of heat, rain, wind and cold had severely damaged his stone marker.
Friday morning, about 70 sixth-graders from Schenectady’s Lincoln Elementary School helped install a new marble stone under a clear blue sky. The Veterans Administration paid for the slender, four-foot tall stone; the kids collected $100 by selling chocolate treats during the winter, and their money sponsored the Ray memorial.
The ceremony included Civil War reenactors, musicians playing period songs, two high school color guards and 29 American flag-bearing members of the Patriot Guard Riders. Stone replacement for Civil War veterans is a continuing project at St. Agnes.
“They’re really in bad shape, some of them,” said Kelly Grimaldi, the cemetery historian. “Marble is a soft, porous stone and disintegrates over time.”
Lincoln’s decision to help began with a newspaper story about funds raised to buy a grave marker for a Civil War-era drummer boy.
“We thought that was a good connection, because it was somebody that was their age,” said Lincoln sixth-grade teacher Jonathan Younkin. “I think the drummer boy was 11 or 12 years old. After showing them the article, the kids were like, ‘We’d like to do this for somebody else.’ We brainstormed and came up with the ideas to raise money. It puts a real story to the Civil War.”
Kids sold hot chocolate. Teachers sponsored a dress-down day and paid to wear blue jeans to school.
During the ceremony, half the stone was placed in a hole at the head of Ray’s grave. Students Shawne Drozdzak and Dyamante Lewis held the stone in place while classmates, one by one, used garden trowels to throw earth into the hole. The 11- and 12-year-olds also raked the dirt smooth once the hole was filled, spread grass seed and placed two bunches of white mums and a small American flag before the new marker.
“It’s very, very cool,” Grimaldi said. “Students nowadays, I don’t think, get much exposure to civics in school as part of their curriculum. I think it’s important they understand we are a country that is nothing without our military servicemen and women, no matter how long ago they served.”
In addition to light exercise, the kids also received a history lesson during their field trip. Mark Bodnar, president of the Colonie Historical Society, said more Civil War soldiers died of disease than they did battle wounds.
“Why?” Bodnar asked. “Because the men weren’t fed a proper diet, were exposed to rain, snow, cold and heat daily, slept on the ground in all kinds of weather and were not clothed in decent uniforms. Also, medicine which we now think of very common today was not available during the Civil War period.”
Ray, a native of Ireland, was a private in Company H, 177th New York Infantry. He died of typhoid fever in Bonnet Carre, La., on March 5, 1863. The students, dressed in shorts, jeans, hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts, were reverent during proceedings.
“They fought for us to have freedom,” said Luisa Sanchez, 12.
“I thought it was really great,” added Alana Hussein, 11. “I like old soldiers. If the soldiers never fought the Civil War, I probably would be a slave right now.”
Local members of the Disabled American Veterans watched the hourlong ceremony.
“I think it’s great for the kids to learn about history,” said John Mullen, 68, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Troy. “And learn about the sacrifices made so many years ago.”
William H. Payne of Saugerties dressed in Civil War-era military garb and played the bodhran, an Irish drum, with the music trio Veterans in a New Field. He says ceremonies for fallen soldiers are important.
“He was just a private, he was just one little man, but he made up part of a large army that changed our country for the better,” Payne said. “And it wasn’t even his own nation.”
Payne wonders what Thomas Ray might have thought about all the speeches and spectacle at his grave, 150 years after his passing.
“I would think he would have thought this was a really, great, great country,” Payne said. “And he made a contribution toward it.”