Memorial Day holds a special place in the hearts of a band of metro-east residents who dedicate themselves to making sure that men who fought in long ago wars aren't forgotten.
Walnut Hill Cemetery in Belleville is one of the most significant Civil War veteran burial sites in the state of Illinois, according to local historian Dennis Hermann. He said more than 400 Union soldiers are buried there beside veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Korean War.
Many of the graves are in four plots given by the city in 1893 to the Women's Relief Corps, which pledged to use them to make sure indigent former Union soldiers had a decent and proper burial. But dozens of others are scattered through the cemetery.
The small group of history enthusiasts has made it their mission to make sure that the graves of Walnut Hill's Civil War veterans are always cared for.
At the top of a hill overlooking the Freeburg Avenue entrance to the cemetery, a group of five members of the Col. Friedrich K. Hecker Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil war met Saturday among a group of well-weathered, white tombstones. The markers are lined up beneath a waving American flag and surround an obelisk monument dedicated "To the defenders of the Union."
From there they started a Memorial Day ritual of putting a flag on each of the Civil War veteran's graves. The spectacle of the hundreds of fluttering American flags will greet people who attend a ceremony Monday at the end of Belleville's Memorial Day parade.
"Our job is to perpetuate the Grand Army of the Republic," said Garry Ladd, a member of the Hecker Camp council. "We try to carry on a lot of their traditions and we remember those who died for the cause as well as those who survived the war but died later."
But the number of volunteers they can muster for the service has dwindled. The group of five who showed up Saturday is down from an average of 15 to 18 volunteers just a few years ago. Before World War II veterans in the group started to reach their 70s, the number sometimes reached the 30s.
"A lot of our people are older, so they don't get out much anymore," Ladd said. "Our oldest member, Bill Jacobus, is 86. He still comes out for every event. But we've lost a lot of people who don't get out anymore."
Jacobus, who served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, said he got involved with the Sons of Union Civil War Veterans as a way to honor his great-grandfather who fought for the Union in the War Between the States.
"He was from the Millstadt area and he was in the war, although he didn't get into too much action," Jacobus said of his great-grandfather, Charles Jacobus. "I had another relative who was shot in the leg during the Second Battle at Bull Run."
Jacobus walked in Belleville's Memorial Day Parade last year at 85 and carried the flag the whole way. This year, despite some problems getting around, he plans to try to make the walk again.
"He's very dedicated to his great-grandfather," said Bill's wife, Barbara Jacobus. "That's one of the reasons he still does it. Plus he really loves his country and this is a way to give back."
The cemetery work involves a lot of walking and sometimes a lot of physical work, Ladd said.
Members of the group will clean up anything that needs to be tended near the graves. They help to repair damaged or toppled grave markers or, in some cases, can assist descendants of the Civil War dead in getting a replacement stone if the original is beyond repair.
One of the problems in finding new members for the group is that people have to have -- and be able to prove -- a direct ancestral line to a Civil War veteran to be a member. Organizers can help prospective members try to trace their roots. But sometimes the link just isn't there, Ladd said.
Besides the Memorial Day event at Walnut Hill, Hermann said it's easy for people not to realize such an important Civil War site is right under their nose in Belleville.
The idea for a municipal cemetery was suggested a few years before the Civil War broke out, according to the St. Clair County Genealogical Society. City residents started to see the need for a remote burial spot in 1849 when a cholera epidemic gripped the Belleville area.
Up until then, local residents would bury loved ones in family plots on their property. But fear of the disease caused people to decide that maybe those killed it shouldn't be buried so close to living relatives.
On March 1, 1850, Belleville leaders paid $400 for the original plot of land on the outskirts of town where the Walnut Hill cemetery was started. On March 7 they passed an ordinance banning the burying of a body within the corporate limits of town.
In the cemetery's early days, about 60 percent of those buried were children 5 years old or younger.
Among the Civil War veterans buried at Walnut Hill are two heroes of battle whose tall monuments are easy to spot.
Brig. Gen. Hugo von Wangelin, a Prussian native whose father fought under Napoleon Bonaparte, lies beneath a square column at Walnut Hill. He sold his farm when the Civil War broke out and in August 1861 volunteered with the 12th Missouri Infantry, a unit made up mostly of German immigrants. He fought at the battles of Pea Ridge, Lookout Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain and Missionary Ridge and in the Siege of Vicksburg. He lost his right arm in the battle of Ringgold Gap in 1863. After he recovered he resumed command of his unit for the Battle of Atlanta and then was mustered out. He was appointed the postmaster of Belleville by President Abraham Lincoln and held that job for eight years. He also served as a Belleville alderman in civilian life.
Brig. Gen. William Kueffner, a German immigrant, lies under one of the most striking monuments at Walnut Hill. His grave is marked by a life-sized statue of a Union soldier standing in full uniform with both hands on the muzzle of his musket, the butt of which rests on the ground at his feet. He was a captain in the 9th Illinois Infantry and later was named commander of the 149th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was involved in 110 engagements with Confederate forces and was wounded four times. After the war, he was a tax collector for four years. He later became a successful lawyer until his death at the age of 53.
Anyone interested in joining the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War project or volunteering time in future cemetery projects can contact Garry Ladd at 618-222-8843.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 618-239-2626.