Group to identify buried vets in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

An old cemetery in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
An old cemetery in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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When I was a kid, there was an old cemetery high on a hill above my grandmother’s house.  There was an old cedar tree in the back with the ancient graves and sometimes I’d ride my bike up there and wander among the mossy stones.

One of the graves in the back was the final resting place of some relative dead longer than my grandmother had been alive.

I think that was why I went the first time, to see that grave.

Why I went back?

It was the 1980s in rural Southern Indiana and sometimes the days got a little slow.

But also I was a pensive, slightly morbid kid.

I liked the idea of the history and mystery of who the people were. I could take the little details on the stone and extrapolate that out, connecting the dots of relatives and who lived and died when. I liked thinking about what was happening in the world when they lived and what was happening in the world when they died.

The best ones belonged to the veterans; of course, they had more little details to provide fire to the imagination.

I hadn’t thought of all that in years but a press release from a local history group lit a spark I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

The group has launched a project to identify all veterans buried in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

So far the group has identified 163 veterans spanning the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War.

The team has identified 103 buried in Tennessee: 26 in Blount County; 38 in Sevier County; and, 39 in Cocke County.

In North Carolina, there are 60 known veterans buried: 49 in Swain County and 11 in Haywood County.

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The plan is to build a publicly available interactive database of all the veterans buried in the national park to include: biographical data, cemeteries where they are located, and the wars and unit records in which they served. Listed separately will be cenotaphs – headstones in a location without a body buried – and for cremated veterans, only the scattered ashes of individuals registered with the GSMNP will be included.

Also, veterans originally buried in the park but whose bodies were moved to a new location from their original resting place before Fontana Dam flooding, will be listed.

A cemetery in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
A cemetery in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

“Our goal is to honor and protect the valor of those who served and not let their memory be erased because of where they are buried,” stated Joe Emert, a member of the National Parks System Advisory Board and former president of the East Tennessee Historical Society.

“We are putting this initial list out for review by the public to ensure we are not missing any veterans who are buried in the national park. All currently listed veterans have been verified through military records or historic books and documents listing their military service. Any new additions will have to be verified and documented through the same process before being added to the list.”

I still find, after all the years, the idea of combing the wilderness for forgotten cemeteries and old graves is intriguing to me.

The ability to reach back into the history of the mountains – much of it before it became the park – and withdraw and discover that history is fascinating.

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I know we’re spending a lot of time talking about the broad strokes of history right now. What deserves to be remembered and what deserves a place of honor.

But what I’ve learned is that so much of history exists in between the wide, broad strokes. The great men and women who rise above history’s tide – most of them will be remembered, although over time they will fade as well. But history, the kind that doesn’t come with a capital H and doesn’t get written about in textbooks or immortalized in bronze, we lose so much of that every day. 

So many people lived their lives in those mountains and almost all of their stories are lost, ground to heel under the unending forward march of time. Maybe a headstone here, a family Bible there. Maybe we have a name on a ledger but who they were and what they fought for is often gone.

We have the tools now to better tell and better preserve our own stories. It will be harder to erase us from the edifice of time. We’ve girded our own legacies against that time when we will no longer matter.

But this effort to extract the stories of some of our forebears from the dust before they are lost altogether is a noble one and even if you can’t go in person, I hope you take time to look at the names and the dates and, even if for just a few minutes, keep their stories alive.

The list can be viewed on Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center website, gsmheritagecenter.org and also on the Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery website, friendsofthebccemetery.org.

To add a veteran who is buried or whose remains have been scattered in the GSMNP to the list, share photos or to provide support in development of a biographical sketch, please contact Don Casada at: [email protected].

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