The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Grand Army of the Republic

The G.A.R. was a fraternal organization of veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.  Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member died. At its peak in 1890, it boasted a membership of more than 400,000.  

My great-great-great grandfather, John Koken of Easton, Pennsylvania, was a member of the G.A.R.  He was born in Feb 1839, and entered the service on October 7, 1862 as a private, along with his younger brother Jacob, who was promoted from private to sergeant.  They enlisted for a term of nine months, but ended up serving ten months.  Their end of their term would have occurred as they were heading towards battle in Gettysburg, and their regiment, the PA 153rd, agreed to serve additional time to take part in the battle.

Most of the 153rd’s service in late 1862 and early 1863 was spent guarding Washington, but they also served in the Battle of Chancellorsville.  They were on the farthest side of the right flank, and due to General Hooker’s and Howard’s refusal to accept reconnaissance information that the Confederates were very close, the entire Union army was caught unaware on May 2, 1863.  Stonewall Jackson’s brigade came crashing through the woods as the 153rd was preparing dinner.  The Union soldiers fled (and I would have too), and the Confederates won a major battle.  The 153rd consisted of mostly Pennsylvania Dutch of German origin, who spoke little English, even though their families had been in eastern Pennsylvania since before the Revolution.  Because of the bias against the “funny-speaking” Germans and their disorderly retreat before the enemy, they were derisively called “the Flying Dutchmen.”  

Grandpa Koken and his brother were not wounded at Chancellorsville, and they marched with the rest of the Eleventh Corps to Gettysburg.  On July 1, 1863, the 153rd was again placed at the far right flank on Barlow Knoll and were routed by the Confederate attack.  (Note to self:  if in a battle, do not stand on the right)  They were forced to fall back through the town and regroup on Cemetery Hill.  While this could be viewed as a loss, the 153rd and the rest of the Eleventh Corps did something crucially important:  they bought the Union time to get the rest of the army to Gettsyburg, and they helped to secure the high ground on Cemetery Hill/Ridge.  The high ground at Gettysburg proved to be one of the Union’s greatest advantages for winning the battle.

Sgt. Jacob Koken was not wounded on July 1st, but Grandpa John Koken was.  He sustained a bullet through his right lung, entering his right breast and exiting his middle back.  One of his comrades related the story of finding Grandpa behind the Gettysburg barn that was serving as a hospital (possibly the Spangler farm).  “I found my friend John lying under the shelter of a few boards which had one end laid on a fence.  He was very glad to see me and his case was pitiable enough.  He had been wounded in the chest, and the great profusion of blood had saturated his clothes, pocketbook and all.  There were $60 in bills so covered with blood that they required soaking and washing.  [possibly he had this money from a reenlistment bonus]  I laid them out on the boards with some pieces of garments to dry.  He requested me to send the money home.  He was subsequently removed to a hospital in Newark (NJ).  He lived many years and was employed in railroading.”

Grandpa John did live many years, dying on July 5, 1892.  He was brakeman on the railroad, although his pension file states he never was completely healthy after the war, suffering a lack of stamina and breathing difficulties.  Other comrades of his were surprised he survived, since he suffered a serious wound.  Had he died, I would not be here, as his daughter, Cora Mae, my 2nd great grandmother, was not born until 1870.  

Recently I visited Gettysburg and stood on Barlow Knoll, where Grandpa Koken likely was wounded.  Or he could have been wounded as the rebels chased the Union troops back through town.  I also found his grave, in South Easton, PA.  Perhaps he was not a hero of the war, but he agreed to fight again in Gettysburg, even after the frightening experience in Chancellorsville.  And he survived a serious wound, and was thinking about his new wife back home (they had not even been married a year yet in July 1863).  And he lived for almost thirty years after the war, working and providing for his family.  To me, Grandpa Koken is not a cowardly Flying Dutchman….but a German American who served his country and his family.  Amen to that.

PA 153rd Monument, Gettysburg

John Koken's name on PA Monument, Gettysburg

John Koken's grave, Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA

GAR Monument, Doylestown Cemetery, Doylestown, PA

GAR Marker, New Britain Baptist Cemetery, New Britain, PA

GAR Marker, Quakertown Union Cemetery, Quakertown, PA

GAR marker, Indian Orchard Cemetery, Indian Orchard, PA

GAR symbol, Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

GAR marker, Indian Orchard Cemetery, Indian Orchard, PA

GAR marker, St. Luke's Evan. Lutheran Cemetery, Ferndale, PA

Typical Civil War Veteran gravestone, provided by federal government

GAR marker, St. James' Cemetery, Chalfont, PA

Friday, July 22, 2011

“Treestones”---Symbols of Life Interrupted and Woodmen of the World

My father’s favorite cemetery gravestones are those in the shape of tree stumps.  The Victorian rusticity movement celebrated nature, and many 19th century gravestones featured logs, leaves, twigs and tree stumps.  Tree stumps symbolize a life interrupted, and when they have a broken branch, it means a young life ended too soon.  But many of the “tree stones” in cemeteries are monuments erected to deceased members of Woodmen of the World (WOW).  WOW is an American fraternal benefit society, still in existence, and was founded in Omaha, Neb., by Joseph Cullen Root on June 6, 1890.  

Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa in 1883, after hearing a sermon about "pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families."  Some years later, Root fell out with the Modern Woodmen of America over accusations of false beneficiary claims. He moved to Omaha, where he founded WOW to provide life insurance protection to its members, and also cemetery monuments when they died.  

Currently, WOW is a large financial services organization, providing insurance, annuities and securities for its membership of more than 2,000 lodges.  Root also believed Woodmen should volunteer in their communities, and his belief was realized dramatically in 1900 when a tidal wave devastated Galveston, Texas.  Root happened to be visiting the city and led the relief efforts.  WOW’s disaster relief efforts continue today through their partnership with the American Red Cross.
Root believed that no Woodmen should rest in an unmarked grave, and from 1890 to about 1930, deceased members could have a monument in the shape of a tree stump.  After 1930, these “tree stones” became too expensive for the fraternity and so usually only the WOW symbol was engraved on tombstones.  Root also maintained that “a Woodman never lies,” and so WOW gravestones never say “Here lies a Woodmen,” but rather, “Here RESTS a Woodman.”  

Other symbols of WOW often adorn these tree stumps, including the maul, the wedge, and the axe---all tools of the lumber trade---and ferns (for sincerity), ivy (for fidelity and faithfulness) and lilies (for purity and resurrection).  On later gravestones, the circular emblem on WOW features the Latin phrase, “Dum Tacet Clamat,” which means “Though silent, he speaks.”  This could be a reference to the idea that “the very best charity is anonymous.” It is a shame that the tree stump monuments became too expensive for WOW to continue to erect, as they are beautiful examples of art imitating nature.

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Snydersville, PA

Glen Dyberry Cemetery, Honesdale, PA

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery, Sellersville, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Hellertown Union Cemetery, Hellertown, PA

Cherry Lane Methodist Cemetery, Stroudsburg, PA

Bolkcom Cemetery, Rileyville, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Carversville Cemetery, Carversville, PA

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Eternal Flame...the Forever Symbol

Eternal Flame at top of Receiving Vault, Dunmore Cemetery

The eternal flame, a flame that burns day and night for an indefinite period, is found in many cultures, both ancient and current.   It is also known as a sanctuary lamp.   There are early Greek references to Persian “Great Fires,” and to an eternal flame attended to constantly by Zoroastrian priests.  Moses the Jewish prophet oversaw the construction of the first menorah in the tabernacle in the Jerusalem temple.  Later, when the Maccabees rebelled about 167 BC against the empire established by Alexander the Great, they reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem and rekindled the menorah’s eternal flame.  They only had enough oil for it to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to get more oil.  And yet, miraculously, the menorah’s flame kept burning until the new oil arrived.  This story is celebrated during Hanukkah.  The flame also symbolizes God’s eternal presence, which is never extinguished.
Christians also have an eternal flame, usually on the altar, for the practical purpose of worship at any time, but also for the symbolism of the light of Christ shining always in the dark.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has an eternal flame burning to honor the sacrifice of soldiers killed in the line of duty, and President John F. Kennedy’s grave features an eternal flame commemorating him, the first time this honor was given to one person.  (Information from
Eternal flame symbols are common on graves in the 19th century, but continue even today, perhaps illustrating that the ones left behind will never forget their loved one. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Symbol of the Weeping Willow in Gravestone Art

     Carvings of weeping willows became very prevalent on gravestones in the early 19th century.  Use of this graceful symbol reflected the young United States’ growing interest in ancient Greece.  Beginning in 1762 with the publishing of The Antiquities of Athens by Stuart and Revett, which produced the first accurate surveys of ancient Greek architecture, Great Britain, Europe and eventually the United States began copying Greek style in architecture and interiors.  This emulation even carried over into funerary art.  For the United States, the comparison between ancient Greece and its democracy with the former colonists’ “grand new experiment” in government was inspiration for copying everything Greek.
     Gravestone carvers created weeping willows alone or with Greek-inspired urns, obelisks, or monuments.  The most obvious meaning of a weeping willow would seem to be the “weeping” part…for mourning or grieving for a loved one.  The saying “she is in her willows” implies the mourning of a female for a lost mate.  And while the Victorians took the art of mourning to new heights, the weeping willow was not just a symbol for sadness. 
     A native of Asia, the weeping willow is a fast growing tree that can reach fifty feet high and fifty feet wide.  It tolerates most any soil and roots easily from cuttings.  Because of this, they are often the first trees to appear in a disturbed site, giving them a reputation as “healers and renewers.” In many cultures, the willow is a sign of immortality, and is associated with the moon, water and femininity.  The weeping willow also has connections to Greece as Orpheus, their most celebrated poet, carried willow branches with him on his journey through the Underworld. The Greek sorceress Circe planted a riverside cemetery with willow trees, dedicated to Hecate and her moon magic.  It was common to place willow branches in the coffins of the dead, and then plant young saplings on their graves, with the belief that the spirit of the dead would rise up through the tree.
Zion Cemetery, Newfoundland, PA

Salem Cemetery, Hamlin, PA

Salem Cemetery, Hamlin, PA

Hellertown Union Cemetery, Hellertown, PA

Hollisterville Cemetery, Hollisterville, PA

Hollisterville Cemetery, Hollisterville, PA

Hornbaker Cemetery, Madisonville, PA

Lakeville Cemetery, Lakeville, PA

St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery, Ferndale, PA

St. Mark's Lutheran Cemetery, Appenzell, PA

St. Peter's Tohickon UCC Cemetery, Keelersville, PA

St. Peter's Tohickon UCC Cemetery, Keelersville, PA

Tannersville Union Cemetery, Tannersville, PA

More Pictures of Weeping Willows