For the first time in decades, perhaps even a century, the names of fallen heroes are being brought to light in Chalmette National Cemetery.

Volunteers kneel in the soft dirt beside long-neglected graves and hand-scrub the marble markers until the names of the lost men and women — the majority of them Union soldiers from the Civil War but also fighters from the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, both world wars and the Vietnam War — start to reappear.

Here’s George C. Coleman, 21, of New York, who died in April 1864 at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads in Louisiana.

Townsend Stevens, of Ohio, and James McElroy, of Pennsylvania, privates in the 6th U.S. Cavalry, lie side by side. McElroy died on July 28, 1866, Stevens the next day.

It’s slow, physically demanding labor, but those taking part in a monthlong cleanup effort say it’s worth it.

“A lot of people overlook this area. They come here to exercise, but they don’t understand the significance of these lands,” said St. Bernard native Kim Samaniego, 19. “This gives me a new view of my hometown and its history as I continue the legacy of stewardship.”

The restoration project is a partnership among the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, with sponsorship from D/2 Biological Solution.

Monica Rhodes, an assistant director of the National Trust’s Hands On Preservation Experience program, said this is the first HOPE project in the state to seek volunteer workers. About 350 have registered to join the cleanup, which also includes realigning and documenting the headstones. There is room for more than double that number of volunteers, she said.

“Events like this help connect people to their parks. Working with your hands is a deeper, richer experience,” Rhodes said. “People think of the national parks and they think Yellowstone or Yosemite out west, but here in New Orleans, people have national parks in their own backyards.”

Established in May 1864 for Union soldiers, Chalmette National Cemetery is now the final resting place of more than 16,000 people — the presence of mass graves make an exact count impossible. The names of almost 7,000 of the dead are lost to history. (No Confederate soldiers are buried here. In the late 1860s, the remains of 132 Confederates who had died as prisoners of war and were interred in Chalmette were transferred to a tomb at New Orleans’ Cypress Grove Cemetery.)

Although the cemetery adjoins Chalmette Battlefield — site of the bloody Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, during which future President Andrew Jackson led the forces that repelled a British attack — only four soldiers who fought in the War of 1812 rest here, and only one of them actually took part in the local battle. His name is unknown, but his grave notes he died on his way home to Tennessee after the war.

Other notable graves include those of 99 so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” members of the first peacetime all-black regiment in the U.S. Army.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a woman who posed as a man in order to join the Union Army, is interred in grave No. 4,066 under her nom de guerre, Lyons Wakeman. A volunteer with the New York Infantry, she saw battle at Red River. She managed to keep her gender a secret until her death in 1864.

Every grave matters, said Jason Church, a material conservator with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

“All of these people have a history. They all had families. They’re all important, even the ones who don’t have a Wikipedia page,” Church said. “This is an important project. This is an important site.”

Despite having lived in the area on and off for decades, neither Rebecca Marcus, 37, nor her mother, Judy Marcus, 74, both of Metairie, had visited the cemetery until they signed up to volunteer. They plan to return every Wednesday in March.

The two women were cleaning stones one recent Wednesday. The process goes like this: First, douse the stone with water, then add D/2 Biological Solution on top. Then scrub with brushes in a circular motion from top to bottom twice and then rinse. After an hour of work, the pair had finished seven stones.

“I told her it would be fun. I lied,” Rebecca Marcus said with a laugh. “No, no, seriously, it’s hard work, but it’s satisfying. I’m amazed at the transformation: ‘Oh my God. Look what the water does. Oh my God, look what happens when you add the cleaner.’ ”

Other volunteers were resetting the headstones. Most are solid marble, from 36 to 40 inches long, and weigh about 200 pounds. Each is meant to stand 21 to 22 inches above the ground, in line with the stones on either side of it. The goal is to honor the dead by having their headstones set like soldiers standing at attention.

Nathan Kyllonen and his mother, Dawn, both of Dallas, tackled that physically taxing job on their first two volunteer shifts. The pair are volunteering until the project wraps up April 1. Nathan Kyllonen, 22, recently graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor’s degree in history and hopes to pursue a career in conservation.

Working in the cemetery made him hungry to learn more about the people interred here.

“The headstones only tell you so much. Some have names and dates and where they came from, but others have almost nothing,” he said. “I keep wondering if people alive today know they have relatives here. If we can document it, maybe more people can come out and visit.”

Dawn Kyllonen said she has long been passionate about cemetery restoration, and she sees wonder even in the most uneven headstones.

“These are the last pieces of documentation of a person,” she said. “To me, this is like an art gallery.”