Under the moss-draped oaks, along the St. Marys River, soldiers’ graves in the old section of the Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Marys serve as a memorial to life in the South in a time when the American colonists were enjoying their newfound independence from British rule.
Laid out at the time of the city’s founding in 1788, the 228-year-old cemetery houses soldiers and their families from the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the American Civil War and every war since then.
Many enclosed by a garden of azaleas and camellias, in certain areas of the burial ground’s expansive four to five acres, it appears vacant, sparsely covered with tombstones that range from the ballast of a ship and shells to earth mounds and ornate headstones with depictions of flowers, broken chains, clasped hands, lambs and chopped down trees on them.
But what many don’t know is that thousands of unmarked graves are scattered across the Oak Grove Cemetery grounds, many of which will be recognized in a large patriotic ceremony on Saturday, said Kay Westberry, a local historian and Oak Grove Cemetery volunteer.
“The local DAR (Earl of Camden Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution) had a tour here and saw how many were buried at the time and it was believed to be 10,” Westberry said, who also wrote the book, “Oak Grove Cemetery: Quiet Reflections on the History of Saint Marys and Its People.”
With the help of the Brunswick and Marshes of Glynn chapters of Daughters of the American Revolution, along with the Oak Grove Cemetery Authority, Westberry says they collectively got together and began searching for descendants of those soldiers and seamen known to have relocated to other nearby counties in Florida and Georgia.
“We discovered that there were 29 unmarked graves,” she said. “There were no other cemeteries around St. Marys; it was the only public cemetery in 100 miles on any section and that included those who lived in Spanish Florida and wanted to be buried on American soil,” she said.
A tribute to Revolutionary War patriots, the ceremony on Saturday will begin with a memorial service at 10 a.m. at Howard Gilman Waterfront Park in St. Marys, followed by a patriotic procession to the cemetery and a dedication ceremony at the cemetery.
In addition to the markers that have been installed at the graves of these 29 men, a large plaque will be dedicated, along with music by Camden County High School’s choral group, Volume One, as well as musket firings, the U.S. Navy base commander and color guard, and costumed docents at each of the marked graves, Westberry said.
“Wreaths, single roses, insignia and several 13 Star (or Betsy Ross) flags will be placed at each ... (but what) sets this ceremony apart is that soil from the 28 Georgia battlefields of that war was collected and will be distributed at the gravesite of each veteran,” she said.
Sixty different descendants will be in attendance, many of whom are coming from as far away as California.
“(Finding them) was hard to do, especially since the city didn’t have records (of those buried in the cemetery),” she said. “We went through DAR and SAR (Sons of the American Revolution) on a particular patriot and located a few families that way. We also reached out to newspapers in 15 counties in Florida, Savannah and California.
“People from all over the U.S. are coming this weekend.”
While it took the groups about six or seven months to track down descendants, identifying the patriots was a bit easier with Bill Ramsaur, a member of the Marshes of Glynn Chapter Sons of the American Revolution Chapter, at the helm.
“Bill Ramsaur, who is in charge of the ceremony and is a central organizer, helped track down the other 19 men and put together a catalog of every guy,” she said.
Some of them served important roles in the American Revolution.
“John Stotesbury and John Patterson were captains of the Pennsylvania Continental Line. John Bachlott, who came over with General Lafayette from France to fight for us, was at the Battle of Little York (which) was the last battle of the war. (And) James Seagrove was an agent on the American side behind British lines,” she said, adding that some of the soldiers were at Valley Forge in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Most of them died from old age but others succumbed to such diseases as yellow fever.
“It’s fascinating to know that these soldiers lived here. They weren’t born here but moved here after the Revolution, settled St. Marys and started this town,” she said.