While the U.S. has been involved in armed conflict for the last decade, some recognize those veterans who fought in the Civil War a century and a half ago. Shirley Gilfert never cared much for history class as a child. It remained that way until she went to college.
"I hated it when I was growing up in high school," she said. "It was a bunch of boring old dates and wars and things like that ... Until I got in college and I had a wonderful American history teacher, and he turned me on to history because he told about the lives of the people."
A slideshow of pictures from several of the gravesites.
Courtesy of Nebraska City News Press
Shiloh Camp, Department of Nebraska Sons of Union Veterans of Civil War participate a re-dedication ceremony at the grave of Paul Dishong Jr., who died in Nebraska City in 1917. The Civil War veteran was buried at Wyuka Cemetery for 94 years before his grave received a headstone.
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That stayed with her through her career as an eighth-grade teacher, even though she taught a different subject.
"I was supposed to be teaching English, but very often I was teaching history," Giilfert said. "One boy told me, 'Mrs. Gilfert I learned more from you in my English class than I ever did in Social Studies,' and that made me feel good.
"For instance, we would teach The Diary of Anne Frank,' and I discovered that my kids knew absolutely nothing about WWII who started it, and why, and so on and so one of my projects was, as we were studying, each student was to find out something and make a report on WWII, and they loved it," she said. "Each time I tried to get them involved, so that they had an understanding of the background of the book, and it made it more interesting, I think."
Today, Gilfert's passion for history continues by volunteering at the Otoe County Museum in Syracuse, Neb. Sometime last year, she and a friend were checking the accuracy of cemetery records in the community.
"We got to looking at the Civil War vets and so on, and I remembered reading about this ex-slave that was buried up there," Gilfert said. "So we tried to find his grave, and we couldn't; and I came back and read through this book and read that the Legion at the time had tried to get a monument (but) they couldn't because he was very poor."
Gilfert read the passage from the Syracuse Centennial album, published in 1971:
"'The most unusual Civil War veteran was Ike Stewart, a negro and a slave, who fought in the battle of Fort Sumter' that of course is incorrect," she interjected. "Ft. Sumter, was the beginning, that's what started the Civil War, and he was still a slave at the time He and his family lived in Syracuse for many years. He is buried with other civil war veterans in Park Hill cemetery.'"
Stewart is one of nearly 20,000 Civil War veterans buried in Nebraska. Merle Rudebusch knows, because he and his wife are counting them.
"My wife and myself, we have a trailer, and we've been going out to different counties. We walked 40 different counties in the state and 400 different cemeteries, so far," he said. "According to my records, we have about 1,100 cemeteries in the state where veterans are buried, and they are buried in 92 of the 93 counties. "
Rudebusch, from Lincoln, is leading a gravesite registration effort by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in Nebraska. The group is cataloguing all Civil War veterans' graves in the state.
"My Civil War ancestors are my great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather, both were from Illinois," he said. "The great-great grandfather enlisted in the 11th Cavalry ,and he was involved through the war, all four years of the war. (He) was discharged in 1865. He was in a number of major battles, (like) the Battle of Shiloh."
Rudebusch has a folding kitchen utensil his great-great grandfather Alexander Mc Clain used during the war. He also has keepsakes from annual meetings of veteran group Grand Army of the Republic that his great-grandfather John McClain attended after the war. John was Alexander's son. They served in the Civil War at the same time, but not together. When the GAR ended, the Sons of Union Veterans was started.
"It's a matter of respect for the veterans and what they did, and for my ancestors and what they did," Rudebusch said. "And to see that we're living at a period of time when it is our time to do these things, and others should be following. "
Norm Weber lives in Wisner and is also a member of the Sons of Union Veterans. Two of his great-great grandfathers were in the Civil War.
"I have a great-great grandfather, Frederick Weber, who was in a unit out of Trenton, N.J., and then I have James Collier, a great-great-grandfather who was out of Dekalb, Ill., and both of those individuals after the war homesteaded in Nebraska up by Randolph."
Weber is active in identifying graves in northeast Nebraska. He described a recent walk through a cemetery near Clarks.
"There were 33 Civil War veterans that were listed," he explained. "Out of that group, we were able to verify the presence of 30 of them, which the statistics and data were right on; three of them we couldn't confirm. But at the same time, we found two others that weren't on the list, and that's pretty typical of what happens when we get into the cemetery. "So it's a high percentage that we are able to confirm, a low percentage that we can't, but always adding some that no one knew were there."
The grave registration project includes a hodgepodge of military records, census data and family history. Rudebusch said they often find something missing at the gravesite.
"We discovered that there are veterans out there that do not have headstones," he said. "So as a result, we record that information, we record the condition of the headstone and what kind of a headstone it is, so we know whether it's a military-type or a private stone. Then we record that and it's all sent in to the national database."
Back in Syracuse, retired teacher Shirley Gilfert and others in the area worked for months to get approval for a gravestone for Ike Stewart.
"I just felt so bad and I just wondered if they couldn't get him a marker because he was black," she said. "He was the only black man that lived here in Syracuse, and I was really curious about it. And if that's the case, that's just not right, I've got to do something about it. So I started researching to find out who he was, where had been. I did find out that he was an ex-slave on a Kentucky plantation for a man named Stewart, and that's where he got his name."
With a monument company in Nebraska City donating a gravestone, it finally happened. A Civil War era cemetery re-enactment led by the Sons of Union Veterans this past Memorial Day paid tribute to that former slave from the South who served the country 150 years ago. And for Gilfert, it's an experience she won't forget.
"It was an all-summer thing and all winter, but I really enjoyed it," she said. "And when I got through it, I thought, You know, I've done something that I really feel proud of.'"
The Nebraska Sons of Union Veterans has conducted more gravestone dedications than usual around the state this year. Norm Weber said he's participated in gravestone ceremonies with more than 100 family members of the veteran in attendance. For him and others recognizing their own family history, it's not just about a war that took place more than a century ago.
"When we do a headstone dedication, we make it very clear that even though we are there on this day to dedicate a headstone and recognize this particular Civil War veteran, that we are also trying to pay honor all of our veterans, past present and even if you want to think about it, into the future," he said. "So it's making that contact with what would be our past heroes and also to recognize our present ones."