Unknown Civil War soldiers buried between Wright City and Innbsrook, MO, recognized during ceremony at Warren County church.
One-hundred and sixty years ago, this was a community divided.
The Civil War raged across the United States, threatening to tear the young nation apart.
Warren County wasn’t spared, nor were the young men fighting in what remains the deadliest U.S. war in the nation’s history.
That war killed approximately 620,000 Americans. For context, that’s roughly as many Americans were killed in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
And many families never knew what happened to their loved ones, whether they wore Union blue or Confederate gray.
Many were buried in unmarked graves left to be forgotten to history.
One of those graves is in the cemetery at Harmonie Church in Innsbrook.
“They don’t know how many young men are in there, but they do know that some are from the Confederacy and some are from the Union,” Kelley Wright said.
Wright, who serves as the sales manager for The Warren County Record, had visited the church in July not long after she had started at the newspaper hoping to build a relationship and help the congregation market its services.
While she was at that meeting, she learned of the grave marked solely by a large rock in the ground. No one knows much about the mass grave.
No one knows how many bodies are buried in it.
No one knows when they were buried.
No one knows what those soldiers did in Warren County during the war.
All that is known is that the bodies of both Union and Confederate soldiers lie at rest together, and that they died of diptheria, a serious infection of the nose and throat that today is easily preventable but in the 1860s was often fatal.
It made Wright, a mother of four including two boys in their 20s, wonder how the mothers of those buried so unremarkably must have felt when their sons never came home.
“I was thinking how I would have felt had my children been off fighting a war and something happened to them and they were just laid to rest, unknown, unaccounted for and it just would not go away,” she said.
So she called her new friend, Linde Flanders, and said something had to be done.
“She said it just really touched her mother’s heart,” Flanders said.
The two women spent the next several weeks working to acquire proper stones to identify the grave site and to prepare a ceremony to recognize the soldiers who had for more than a century been forgotten by almost everyone.
But for Flanders and Wright, the ceremony was more about honoring the Civil War dead. They wanted to bring the community together and help heal the rifts that have the nation more divided than at any point since the end of the great American war.
The project, which Wright called “a labor of love,” ended up involving several members of the community.
“We went to the VFW meeting and asked for some funding and one of the guys said ‘well, we need to pass the hat,” Flanders said. “He took his hat off and they passed it and they gave us a huge donation. And then we went to the Marine Corps League meeting and they did the same thing.”
In the end, a number of local groups helped make the dedication happen, including Warrenton Marine Corps League, Warrenton VFW, Marthasville American Legion, Innsbrook Historical Society, Moment of Grace Florist, Warrenton High School, Wright City High School, Dave Roper, and Jerry Prouhet.
The community support was “amazing,” Wright said.
“The love and support the people in this community have shown for this project, they just all opened their hearts,” Flanders said.
Roper, for instance, drove from his home in East Alton, Ill., to Huntsville, Ala., to pick up the two new grave markers. Members of the church and Warren County Sheriff’s Department deputies helped get the two 140-pound stones from the truck to the site. And Prouhet took care of digging the holes and leveling the stones.
“I think we’re living in a time of such sadness and violence and division that I feel like the community really needed something to rally around,” Wright said. “Something that meant peace, something that meant love, something that meant companionship, something good.”
The ceremony did rally the community. The day of the ceremony, Nov. 4, a huge crowd came out, filling the small church parking lot and requiring some attendees to park across Stracks Church Road.
Some were dressed in their service uniforms. Re-enactors proudly wore their blue and gray. Some wore the clothes of a civilian, grateful to pay tribute to the service of those buried.
“The ceremony was everything it was supposed to be,” Wright said after the event. “It wasn’t about Union and Confederacy. It wasn’t about a nation divided. I was about coming together to honor young people who fought for what they believed in and to recognize them.”
During the ceremony, songs were sung by Wright City High School student Hailey Patterson, prayers were said by the church pastor the Rev. Doug Kraus, a poem was read, and two wreaths were laid – one of blue flowers laid for the Union soldiers, one of yellow flowers for the Confederate soldiers.
It also featured four Warrenton students playing Taps on an echo.
“I was glad to be here and to be able to support our community,” Warrenton High School senior Roy Briggs said.
“I’m going to be glad that this is something I’m a part of,” sophomore Joe Buechner said.
“We’re just really glad to be a part of this community and to be able to be a part of the ceremony,” freshman Malia Hopper said.
That community spirit carried over to everyone present.
“For future generations, they can come out and see this and understand what happened, what went on at that point,” Civil War re-enactor Gary Dunakey said, wearing his blue Union uniform.
“We need to recognize these men for their sacrifices,” Ray Cobb said, another re-enactor in the gray uniform of the Confederacy.
The two re-enactors stood shoulder to shoulder, emulating what happened more than a century earlier when the soldiers from both armies were buried together.
“We had Union and Confederate soldiers out there talking and laughing,” Wright said. “I hope that feeling continues and branches out into our community.”
About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at firstname.lastname@example.org