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Dan Rodricks: In Oakland, Md., tradition demands a Memorial pause for those departed

Grave of Eli Truly, black veteran of Civil War buried in Oakland Cemetery, Oakland, Garrett County.
Grave of Eli Truly, black veteran of Civil War buried in Oakland Cemetery, Oakland, Garrett County.(Dan Rodricks)

OAKLAND — In this "great small town" at the western edge of Maryland, they have observed Memorial Day on the last Monday of May every year since 1893, with a procession up the hill from Third Street and a ceremony under an oak tree and a hemlock in the town cemetery.

The oak and the hemlock are still there, big as history, and providing shade for the ceremony by the grave of an unknown Union soldier who died in Garrett County during the Civil War.

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"He was wounded in Winchester, Va., and they brought him to Oakland to be treated by Dr. [Josiah Lee] McComas," said Randall Kahl, the historian for the American Legion post here. "The soldier died, and they didn't know his name."

So the townspeople buried him between the oak and hemlock. For decades, a wooden cross marked the grave. The Legion replaced it with a handsome stone in 1950. Every Memorial Day, an Oakland woman put a red rose atop the stone at 6 a.m. The woman's daughter has continued the tradition, Kahl said, pointing to the long-stemmed rose that had been placed on the stone Monday morning.

It was one of many traditions that marked Oakland's remembrance of those who died in war or in the years after their military service. The chaplain of the American Legion post gave the invocation and benediction. Pipers played "Amazing Grace." A high school band performed patriotic tunes and taps. Wreaths were placed near the stone to the unknown. The honor squad from the Veterans of Foreign Wars post fired into the air to salute the departed. A woman in red, white and blue handed out crepe-paper poppies.

The town's oldest World War II veteran, DeCorsey Bolden, came out for the ceremony, along with veterans of the Vietnam War.

Kahl, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran of the Korean War era, arrived at the cemetery two hours before the annual ceremony to raise the American flag to half staff. He wore a blue blazer and gray slacks, American Legion cap and VFW necktie, and adjusted the flagpole ropes so that the flag caught the soft breeze. It was a perfect morning of sunshine and sweet aromas from azalea bushes in bloom.

For years, Kahl was the man assigned the duty of placing small American flags on every grave of a veteran or service member killed in action. He inherited that tradition in the early 1980s from a World War I veteran who kept the records of each grave that deserved a flag.

On the first Memorial Day here in 1893 — it was called Decoration Day back then — there were just 13 such graves, Kahl said. Now there are 500, and two other men carry out the duty of placing flags on each.

Kahl still knows where most of the veterans are buried.

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Eighty-three veterans of the Civil War are buried in what is now known as the "old section" of the cemetery.

"Thirteen of them fought for the Confederacy," Kahl said. Two of those buried there were black soldiers who had served in the Union army.

He showed me the area where Garrett County's last World War I veteran, Richard Maroney, was laid to rest in 1992. Flags also marked the graves of Edward H. Bartlett, a doctor who served in the Civil War; Francis Shaffer, a veteran of World War I; and Albert Thrasher, a corporal who died during World War II.

I found grave plates for two brothers who had fought for the Confederate army: David and George Mason. George, the older of the two, died in 1925, David in 1916. Both had served in the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They are buried just a few feet apart.

Kahl wanted me to see the graves of the two black soldiers who served with the Union. Kahl and his wife, Martha, undertook an extensive survey of some 300 graveyards throughout Garrett County. They cross-referenced the names of the departed in those cemeteries with the names of Civil War veterans. That's how they found the graves of the two black soldiers — Eli Truly and Edward Young.

Both Truly and Young served in Union regiments, Kahl said. Though originally from elsewhere in Maryland, both men took jobs as servants in Garrett County after the war and settled there. At the time, B&O Railroad trains came through several times a day, full of tourists seeking rest in the cool mountains of Western Maryland. Oakland was a busy small town.

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The lettering in Truly's grave plate is still clear, but that on Young's has faded over time; it needs to be replaced so that the soldier will always be remembered.

"I'm going to order a government marker for Edward Young's grave," Kahl said. "I'm going to get him a bronze one."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is also the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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