History to come alive in cemetery tour

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Les Marsh cleans leaves away from the gravestone of Capt. Keiter, whose interesting, but brief, life story will be told at the 'Voices From the Past' lantern tour the Sons of Confederate Veterans will be offering Aug. 1 at Willow Mount Cemetery. (T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)

History is alive and well -- at the cemetery?

As far as Les Marsh is concerned, every tombstone and grave marker at Willow Mount Cemetery in Shelbyville has a story to tell and on Saturday, Aug. 1, he and the Sumner A. Cunningham Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Shelbyville will share six of those stories with the public in a special "Voices from the Past" lantern-guided tour.

"Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro has had several of these over the years," said Marsh, who has made it a point to attend many of those candlelight tours. "They take the name of certain soldiers -- the select few they can get information about. They know who they are, they know some of their history.

"We want to do the same thing."

Free tour

The tour will be free and will begin at 7:30 p.m., but reservations are required. They can be made by calling (931) 857-3346. Marsh said he hopes this is the first of many such presentations.

The Willow Mount tour won't just focus on Confederate soldiers, although the centuries-old cemetery does have a large number of soldiers resting there -- now. In the latter half of the 19th century, many of the Confederate slain were moved from isolated graves around the county to Willow Mount and most rest, their identities unknown, under numbered markers.

Stories await

But there are other significant stories to be told at the cemetery.

"This old section has a lot of old names," said Marsh, who is the commander of the local SCV camp. "We're only touching on a fragment of it. This is a camp project we started on two years ago. We like to work with history and we went through the names here -- we had about 50 and we narrowed it down to six for this first presentation. Some are Civil War, some are pre-Civil War, some are from World War I."

In the future, said Marsh, some of the other Bedford County graves would be researched and presented, including those of Dr. Key, the famous owner of the even more famous trick horse, Beautiful Jim Key, and Polk Arnold McGrew, a former slave who went on to be a correspondent for The Chattanooga Times.

But those stories will have to come at a later date. For this year, the camp's first venture, another six names were chosen to research, review and immortalize with a historical presentation.

Unusual 'guests'

But don't expect dry recitations of even dryer history when you take the hour tour, led by Marsh, with real lanterns. The tale of each grave site visited will be told by an actor in period clothing -- representing that person or one of his loved ones. The re-enactor will emerge from the shadows, history coming to life in the flickering light of the lantern's glow, and bringing the visitors a touch of the past.

"We're trying to put people back in time," said Marsh. "No cell phones. We want people to experience the moment."

Much research

Preparing for the event involved a lot of time spent in libraries and government archives, but it proved well worth it, said Marsh,

"We discovered some interesting stories -- some they might not have ever heard," he said. "There are so many stories to be told, right here."

Some of his research solved a mystery that had puzzled Marsh for a ling time -- why was Capt. Keiter, born in what is now West Virginia and killed in Kentucky, buried in Bedford County?

"He was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute," said Marsh. "He was highly thought of there, but he couldn't get a job he really loved."

Keiter found himself in Shelbyville, where he founded his own military academy with a Frenchmen, said Marsh. After his death in Kentucky, when a cannon named after General Leonides Polk's wife ( "She was a large and boisterous lady," said Marsh) blew up while it was being demonstrated for the general himself, some of his students from Shelbyville went to Kentucky found his body, and brought him home.

"His parents never knew what happened to him," said Marsh.

This was only a fragment of Keiter's interesting story -- to find out the rest, and the stories of five others, you will have to join the tour and let history unfold at Willow Mount.