By Timothy Bradfield
LAFAYETTE, Ga. - It's been a mystery for nearly 150 years: Who are the 15 unknown Confederate soldiers buried in the City of LaFayette Cemetery?
The Sons of Confederate Veterans John B. Gordon Camp 599 in LaFayette is doing research and so far has identified 18 of the 24 men killed in the Battle of LaFayette in 1864.
Camp historian Robert G. Brooks says he's been working on the project on and off for a year.
"I guess I'm a history nut, especially about the War Between the States," he said.
He said he's been able to determine that the men buried in the downtown cemetery were from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. But Brooks has made no link to any of their ancestors.
"I wouldn't even know where to start," Brooks said.
In his quest to figure out the soldiers' names, Brooks accessed a national roster of Confederate soldiers and did research at the LaFayette and Chattanooga libraries. The names of several soldiers were provided by other researchers he met online, he said.
To figure out the names of the other six casualties, Brooks said, he expects to comb through several thousand soldiers' records.
"It'll mean a lot and really be exciting when we do find it all out," he said.
As many as 300,000 Civil War soldiers remain unidentified today because of the time and dedication needed to research each grave, said John Culpepper, city manager of Chickamauga, Ga., and chairman of the Georgia Civil War Commission.
HOW TO HELP
If you believe you are related to any of the identified soldiers or have other information, contact Robert G. Brooks at (706) 639-6019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the 18 identified soldiers, all members of cavalry units, who died at the Battle of LaFayette:
* Major R.H. Redwood
* 1st Lt. S.S. Johnson
* Corp. John Q. Robbins, Co A
* 1st Sgt. Henry Holt, Co K
* Sgt. R.A. Evans, Co. K
* Pvt. Henry Stanton Co. A
* Pvt. Robert. W. Cowley, Co C
* Pvt. William Gibson, Co C
* Pvt. Zack Seriner, Co C
* Pvt. R.B. Bryan, Co D
* Pvt. Thomas Foster, Co E
* Pvt. William F. McGee, Co E
* Pvt. James M. Bryant, Co H
* Pvt. E.S. Culpepper, Co K
* Major Thomas H. Lewis
* OS. John T. Densford, Co. B
* Pvt. H. C. Kemp Co. B
* Pvt. William C. Lewis Co. H
Source: Robert G. Brooks
During the war, a man who died in battle or en route was buried where he fell, Culpepper said. Record-keeping could be scarce in the field, with the soldier himself often the only link to his home or family.
"A lot of times when a soldier would go into battle, he would write his name on a piece of paper and keep it with him so someone would know who he was if he died," Culpepper said.
Today, groups such as the one Brooks belongs to are working, cemetery by cemetery, toward the goal of identifying each unknown grave, Culpepper said.
He said identification is a painstaking process that typically relies heavily on records and research rather than more technologically advanced tools such as DNA testing.
Using DNA would be almost impossible unless a family decided to take it on for one of their family members, Culpepper said.
"With DNA testing, funding would be an issue. Disinterring [the remains] would be an issue unless the family was working with you," Culpepper said.
Because the soldiers at LaFayette were killed in battle, it is likely they were buried together, so identification means determining who is buried in each cemetery rather than who is buried in each plot, Culpepper said.
He said identifying graves begins with state records and online searching.
"You can go to national park or United Daughters of the Confederacy or state archives," Culpepper said. "You've got different sources, but sometimes it just takes a lot of work."
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a national nonprofit organization based in Columbia, Tenn. Its members are descendants of Confederate soldiers, and part of its mission is to honor the fallen.
The camp in LaFayette is going to place a memorial marker listing the names of the identified soldiers at the graves of the unknowns in the city cemetery, camp officials said. There are 5,461 people buried at the cemetery, according to the public works department.
The camp's largest project to date has been the Confederate memorial wall in Joe Stock Memorial Park in downtown LaFayette. The granite monument is engraved with the names of Walker County's Confederate soldiers.
"I think it's very commendable that they're willing to do that, spend their time and effort and money to put these monuments in, in remembrance," LaFayette Mayor Neal Florence said.
The group plans to install the memorial marker in March and have a dedication ceremony in April, officials said.
"We have numerous unknown soldiers, with no name, no anything. There they are, just unknown soldiers," camp Commander Charles W. Bramlett said. "We felt like this would be, for the descendants of those soldiers, to have a nice memorial marker ... would be honoring or in keeping with that [the organization's] direction to honor our ancestors."
Staff writer Jessie Gable contributed to this story.
Timothy Bradfield is based in LaFayette. Contact him at email@example.com.