By Mike Hembree
April 17-25 is National Park Week in the Smokies—and in every other national park. It’s time to celebrate spring, to break out hiking shoes and binoculars, to return to park roads and trails that many have missed for much of the past year.
Activities are scheduled throughout the park system with the focus on how parks have changed through the years, the major role played by park volunteers, the fun and learning associated with the Junior Ranger program, and the contribution parks have made to the world.
April 19 is Military Monday, a celebration centered on those who serve and have served in our armed forces. The parks have provided places for military members and veterans to enjoy comradery and to experience the solace and healing that nature offers. In gratitude for their service, individuals who served in the armed forces can receive free annual national park passes (of course, entry to Great Smoky Mountains National Park always is free). For more information visit nps.gov/subjects/military.
|Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Cades Cove. Photo by Joel Kramer/Flickr|
As we focus on military personnel, here’s something you might not know about the Smokies and the nation’s military heritage: many veterans are buried in cemeteries that lie within the park’s boundaries, and many served during the Civil War. In fact, although veterans of several wars are buried in park cemeteries, Civil War graves are especially numerous.
It surprises many to learn that there are 152 cemeteries within park boundaries, including 16 within Cades Cove alone. The Proctor Cemetery near Hazel Creek has 172 graves.
Headstones and research, much of it done by dedicated volunteers, tell some of the veterans’ stories. An exhaustive survey of park cemeteries is included in Cemeteries of the Smokies by Dr. Gail Palmer.
James Proctor, who is buried in the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Cades Cove, was born along Hazel Creek in 1834 and joined the Confederate Army during the war. He was captured by Union forces and imprisoned at a camp near Chicago, where he eventually accepted a pardon from President Lincoln and agreed to join the Union Army.
It was not unusual for soldiers to fight for the Confederacy and later join Union forces. In the area that became Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there was significant division among residents during the war, with some wholeheartedly endorsing the Rebel cause while others fought for the Union.
|Gilliland cemetery in Cosby. Photo by Keith Cameron. Find more of his images at Smoky Mountain Cemetery Creeping|
Jessie McGee, a Confederate soldier, died in 1902 and is buried in Cataloochee. Two other men buried in that remote section of the park are thought to have served in Confederate ranks, but other stories say they might have been among the men who hid deep in the mountains to avoid fighting, some of whom were captured and executed.
Soldiers who survived the trauma of the war returned home to the fields and farms of the Smokies. Some lived for many years after, including Union Corporal James Gilliland, who died in 1920 and is buried in the Gilliland Cemetery in Cosby.
David Welch III, a Confederate soldier, survived the war but died in 1897 in a dam accident. He is buried in Welch Cemetery in Forney Creek.
Across the park, gravestones are decorated with angels, Bible verses, and praying hands. There are touching epitaphs: “Budded on earth to bloom in heaven.” “God’s finger touched him and he slept.” “How desolate our home bereft of thee.”
Part of the Smokies story, from births to wars to deaths, is told by those tombstones.
Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.