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Honoring soldiers: Local groups work together to restore headstones of Civil War veterans

PLANO – Instead of sleeping in on a Saturday morning, Susannah Hatz woke up before 7 a.m. to attend a cemetery restoration event at Little Rock Township Cemetery and Griswold Cemetery in Plano.

Hatz, a senior at Joliet Central High School and a first sergeant in their JROTC program, volunteered to participate in the event to honor the memory of her grandfather.

“My grandfather was a Vietnam veteran, and he passed away recently,” Hatz said. “I volunteered as a way to honor him and all veterans. It’s important for us to remember them, their stories and their history. I think we should do projects like this more often.”

On Sept. 29, members of the PH Sheridan Camp 2 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and 41 cadets from Joliet Central High School’s JROTC worked together to straighten and clean Civil War veterans’ headstones at the cemeteries. The groups also worked with Plano American Legion Post 395 and cemetery management to paint the large Civil War cannon at Little Rock Cemetery.

During the cemetery cleanup, six new headstones were placed: four at Little Rock Township Cemetery and two at Griswold Cemetery. The headstones cost about $220 each and were paid for by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Phil Jayco, senior army instructor for JROTC at Joliet Central High School, said the service project was a good fit for his student organization.

“JROTC is not about convincing teens to join the military; our goal is to motivate young people to be better citizens and get involved in their community,” Jayco said. “All of the students volunteered, and they all have different reasons for being here today. For some, it’s being respectful of people that came before them, or they love history or are patriotic.”

For the members of SUVCW, the history of the Civil War is personal: To be a member of the organization, you must be a descendant of a Union veteran. However, anyone, regardless of ancestry, can join the group as an associate member.

Steven Westlake, commander of PH Sheridan Camp 2 of SUVCW, said he joined the group to honor his great-grandfather, David Shales, who fought in the Civil War with the 95th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry from McHenry County.

“We are a patriotic and genealogical group to keep the memory of the Civil War and its veterans going,” Westlake said. “It’s important to get young people involved because they are our future.”

Acting manager of the Little Rock Township Cemetery Dick Wade said the cleanup work was needed.

“Some of the gravestones weren’t in good condition, either fallen over or flat on the ground,” Wade said. “Fixing the headstones was [SUVCW]’s idea, and I think that it’s great that they’re teaching the kids about the Civil War and giving respect to our veterans. Hopefully it gets important points across to younger generations and opens their eyes to more understanding about history.”

Mike Zafran, SUVCW’s patriotic instructor for the state of Illinois, said the work was especially important this year as it is the 150th anniversary of the first Memorial Day. Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday began after the end of the Civil War.

“Projects like this is what [SUVCW]’s all about,” Zafran said. “We work to replace tombstones and markers for Civil War veterans. We research the soldiers, make sure they received honorable discharges and that they are in fact buried in that cemetery. It’s important to note that we are not re-enactors. We help keep the history of the Civil War alive by cleaning up cemeteries to honor the soldiers’ memories.”

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