Searching for the Blue and Gray in Athens, Tenn.

Searching for the Blue and Gray in Athens, Tenn.

May 6th, 2012 by Randall Higgins in News

B.E. and Laura LeNoir read a fading grave marker at Athens' Cedar Grove Cemetery. They are members of the Cemeteries of Athens Preservation Association.

Photo by Randall Higgins /Times Free Press.


• Athens City Hall and city website

• Athens Area Chamber of Commerce

• Athens Library

• McMinn Living Heritage Museum and website

• McMinn County Historical Society

• East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville

ATHENS, Tenn. -- They are cemetery detectives.

For two years, a history-minded group of volunteers has been digging up facts, sometimes literally, about men who once were deadly enemies.

But for a century or more, the remains of these men -- Union, Confederate, white and black -- have lain just a few steps from one another in Athens' cemeteries.

The Cemeteries of Athens Preservation Association, founded in 2010, has dug up sinking grave markers, researched records, interviewed descendants, fact-checked biographies and mapped the graves.

Their work is in a new brochure, "Civil War Veterans at Rest," recently published with financial help from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and from a local company, Hacker Sign and Graphics. The brochure will receive an excellence award from the East Tennessee Historical Society this month.

"There were a lot of stones that had tilted or fallen over due to time and some vandalism," Laura LeNoir recalled on a sunny morning walk through Cedar Grove, one of three Athens cemeteries included in the guide.

To date, the group has straightened more than 100 headstones.

Three cemeteries, Cedar Grove, Sullins and Hammonds, all administered by the city of Athens, are included in the brochure. Caring for them now comes under the city's Community Development Director Anthony Casteel and City Codes Enforcement Officer Gayle Petitt.

"One of our goals is education, and preserving the cemeteries preserves our history," LeNoir said.

The group was thinking about a walking tour and a brochure.

"Then while we were working here at Cedar Grove, we noticed three stones propped up against a tree," LeNoir said.

"They were government-issued stones for black veterans," said B.E. LeNoir, her husband.

It turned out a Works Progress Administration employee in the 1930s had recorded burial sites, too, including the three black Civil War veterans. Confirming their actual grave locations led to finding three more.

"They were all in a row. Soldiers row, we call it," LeNoir said.

Those discoveries evolved into the brochure noting Civil War veterans of all backgrounds buried in the three cemeteries.

Tom Biddle, an association member, went through Sullins and Hammonds, looking for age-appropriate burial dates, and researched those names. The group walked all three cemeteries, using the WPA guide, files of the McMinn County Historical Society, documents at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum and the 1890 census report.

"Then the grant opportunity came up," City Councilwoman Ann Davis said.

The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area is on the Middle Tennessee State University campus in Murfreesboro. It provided the federal grant.

The work is not done.

"Oh, no, that would take two lifetimes," LeNoir said.

There are widows' pension records to review, follow-up research for men who died at the date-appropriate time or men who survived their wives and therefore have no widow's pension record.

"We have a lot of other possibles we can't rule in or rule out," LeNoir said.

Contact staff writer Randall Higgins at or 423-314-1029.