Reclaiming the past: Volunteers have big plans for Okolona Confederate Cemetery

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

The summer sun has had its scorching way with a metal warehouse. “The air conditioning went on the blink the other day,” said Don Houston, 70, of Okolona.
“Yeah, we didn’t pay the light bill,” added Kevin Thornton, a 38-year-old Saltillo resident.
Thornton pointed to the roof of the warehouse to show that he and Houston were joking because the building wasn’t wired for electricity.
But they’re happy with their hot-box of a place, where they’ve worked and sweated to improve the Okolona Confederate Cemetery.
“They took the fence down from the cemetery and put it in a pile,” Houston said.
“It sat there for 30 years,” Thornton said.
Weeds and honeysuckle vines grew up through the stacks of rusted wrought iron. The sheer effort it took to pry the fencing from its 30-year resting place probably explained why no enterprising thief stole it over the years.
Thornton, Houston and an ever varying number of volunteers aren’t motivated by profit. They’re trying to restore lost dignity to a cemetery filled with about 800 Civil War soldiers.
“They brought 2,500 men, wounded and dead,” Thornton said. “They brought them in on the railroad from Shiloh and Corinth.”
Okolona’s one college and two seminaries were converted into makeshift hospitals. That wasn’t enough, so churches filled up, and wounded were taken to people’s homes.
“Even today, if you brought 2,500 wounded here, it would be a disaster,” Thornton said. “They were probably more able to handle it then than now. People were more self-reliant then.”
From the Daughters
Men from 12 states were buried in 1862. Thornton said that more than 40 years later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy led the effort to erect marble monuments at the cemetery to honor the fallen.
“Ladies in town kept a list of who was buried there. A lot of them were nurses, so they remembered,” Thornton said. “They worked on it at the turn of the century, when a lot of old veterans were still alive. They placed these monuments here.”
Okolona Confederate Cemetery wasn’t forgotten. Work crews cut the grass. Historians and genealogists walked its rows, looking for names and dates.
Over the years, names and dates became harder to read as white marble markers turned black. In one part of the cemetery, four massive bodock trees caused tombstones to twist and lean. Other markers broke or fell over. The rusted fence was taken down. The words “Okolona Confederate Cemetery” came off the wrought iron arch that fronts Old Highway 45.
“You’d be surprised how many people in this town drive by for years and don’t know anything about it. They never knew there was a Confederate cemetery here,” Houston said. “I lived here 15 years before I knew it.”
“I drove by it for years before I realized it,” said Thornton, an Okolona native.
Thornton walked through the cemetery about three years ago, and the damage and neglect bothered him enough to spur action.
“I’m not related to any of them, other than the spider web of kinship in the South,” he said. “I just thought it was something that needed to be done.”
Tourist stop
As a member of the Harrisburg Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Thornton has an appreciation for the men who fought and died during the Civil War.
He also saw potential for his hometown.
“This is a big deal, especially for a town this size,” Thornton said. “Larger towns don’t have places like this.”
“When we’ve been working out here, I’ve seen people stop by and walk through it,” Houston said. “They don’t spend much time, but it’s seldom been a day when one or two didn’t stop here.”
“We’ve had them from Hawaii and everywhere else,” Thornton said.
“There was one out here from Australia,” Thornton said. “I’m sure he was in Mississippi for something else, but he stopped here.”
Thornton got permission from City Hall to work on the cemetery and organized a Cemetery Commission that meets once a month at the Chamber of Commerce. Houston and others joined the effort. The sheriff has sent work crews, and National Guardsmen have given their time.
Volunteers have straightened and cleaned some of the tombstones, but many more need work. Earlier this year, a team cut down those four bodock trees.
“We had to pull up 100 stones to do it,” Houston said. “We haven’t put them back yet. It’s a big job, and we kind of have to gear up for it.”
The wrought iron fence at the warehouse went through a chemical bath to remove accumulated rust and grime. Most of it’s been coated with primer, and all of it eventually will be painted black and put back in place around the cemetery.
Aiming for 2014
There’s a plan to install flag poles for each of the 12 states represented at the cemetery, and a 13th pole will be erected in honor of about 300 unknown soldiers.
Volunteers got quotes ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 to put the words “Okolona Confederate Cemetery” back on the arch.
“The one that wanted $10,000 ain’t going to hear back from us,” Houston said with a laugh.
Any help, financial or otherwise, would be appreciated, he said. Tax-deductible donations to the Confederate Cemetery Project can be sent to P.O. Box 126, Okolona, MS 38866.
“We want to be done by 2014 for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Okolona,” Thornton said. “Hopefully, we’ll be done. We’ll have a big dedication with all the reenactors out here. We’ll have our 13 flags up and fire off a cannon. That’ll be something.
“We’re getting a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to help. I think it’s all going to happen. I really do.”

Click video to hear audio