A long-standing tradition in East Feliciana Parish, that of celebrating Confederate Memorial Day on April 26, continued at the 4-acre Clinton Confederate Cemetery, where the remains of hundreds of Civil War soldiers, both Confederate and Union, are buried.
Because Clinton was connected to the Mississippi River by railroad, the town received many sick and wounded soldiers by train from nearby Port Hudson, said Park Ranger Marvin Steinback, of Port Hudson State Historic Site, who was the guest speaker at the Clinton observance.
Confederate Memorial Day observances are scattered from April to June and are loosely associated with the Confederacy’s surrender to Gen. William Sherman on April 26, the death of Stonewall Jackson on May 10, or the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on June 3.
Louisiana officially observes Confederate Memorial Day on June 3.
“It’s held in April because that’s when it was first observed here in Clinton in 1865,” said Dewey DeLee, a local historian and chairman of the Clinton Confederate Cemetery Association.
DeLee has organized the memorial for several years with help from local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A group of women in Savannah, Georgia, gathered for Decoration Day, as it was first known in the 1860s, to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers and rededicate themselves to the memory of the men and the war they fought, DeLee said.
During Steinback’s presentation, he shared the history of the cemetery and of area hospital sites, particularly those in Clinton such as at Silliman Institute, which was a hospital during the Civil War.
The cemetery is the final resting place of at least 31 identified Confederate soldiers and more than 600 soldiers in unmarked graves, discovered with the help of thermal imaging performed a number of years ago, Bill Rome, of Ethel, said.
Rome, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has attended the ceremony annually since 2009, is a past speaker, and helps clean and prep the cemetery for those who attend.
“I have been in the cemetery within the last year and a half with a metal detector to locate nails that were placed in the ground as grave markers, but we’re in the process of placing plain stones on the gravesites. For the most part, the identified soldiers were local residents, while those in the unmarked graves represent young men from throughout the South who died in the hospitals established in Clinton for the Port Hudson garrison and in local military actions,” Roma said.
“It’s sobering to think that these young men lie here unknown, but it’s also heartening to see so many haven’t forgotten their sacrifices, as evidenced by the large crowd that attended the ceremony.”
Larry Gates, another Sons of Confederate Veterans member, has researched, documented and identified more than 200 of the soldiers in the unmarked burial sites, Rome said.
Steinback highlighted a few of the soldiers in the unmarked graves — young men from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee — who were part of units serving at Port Hudson and in the Felicianas.
DeLee said the founding fathers of East Feliciana Parish and John Rhea, president of the Republic of West Florida Convention, are buried at the cemetery.
A new sign has been posted — Old Clinton Cemetery and Clinton Confederate Cemetery — since the site is actually two distinct cemeteries in one, Rome said.
“The marked headstones are of families with a long history here in East Feliciana,” Rome said.
The ceremony included patriotic Southern anthems and members of the 10th Louisiana re-enactment regiment presenting arms after a three-rifle volley, an old battlefield custom involving the two sides ceasing battle to remove the dead and wounded. Three shots into the air would follow the removal of the soldiers to signal battle could resume, Steinback said.