Paul LaRue: The Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery as a Place for Learning and Reflection

Paul LaRue teaches high school at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio. He is passionate about Civil War history and inspires the same passion for history in many of his students. He takes his classes to many Civil War sites throughout Ohio and he has been awarded such accolades as Time Warner’s National Teacher of the Year and the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Ohio Teacher of the Year awards.

In August 2005, his high school history class created a database of those buried in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. The next year’s class analyzed the results (check out President Lincoln’s Cottage’s website for these findings.) This database was immensely helpful in the creation of this website, especially in creating the charts analyzing the time period of burials. You can see the raw data Mr. LaRue’s class organized in this Google Spreadsheet, including burials by date of death, name, regiment, cemetery section and grave number.

To thank him for his role in creating the database, we sent Mr. LaRue a few questions regarding his work with the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. (Some answers have been edited for clarity and consistency.)

Paul LaRue

Paul LaRue, high school teacher at Washington High School in Ohio, believes history education is vital to students’ education (Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).

How did you and your class become involved with President Lincoln’s Cottage?

I took a tour of the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery in the summer of 2004 with the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum. I met fellow Ohioan Erin [Mast, Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage], and we hit it off.

How familiar were your students with the Cemetery and/or the Soldiers’ Home prior to the project?

 They were not at all familiar with it.

What about Lincoln interested you and your class?

Honestly, it was more about the Cemetery and the Soldiers’ Home, not really about Lincoln. My students had created an earlier cemetery database ( http://www.wchcs.org/mapsite/index.htm). I had created a Teaching with Historic Places lesson on the Dayton Soldiers’ Home (http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/115dayton/115dayton.htm). I was fascinated by a Soldiers’ Home that pre-dated the 1865 Soldiers’ Home System.

What were the challenges of the project?

Building a database is tricky. We took the burial records given to us by Erin, for the Soldiers’ Home. Those records contained: name, cemetery section number, grave number, and Date of Death. We supplemented with data from the Roll of Honor, Volume Number One. This allowed us to provide Rank, Regiment and company; as well as cross check name and Date of Death. The challenge was to create an accurate database. My class had 15-20 students, so “many hands lighten the load,” but it also complicates tasks. Proofreading was essential and challenging.

During your research, what stories or findings did you find most compelling?

The data allowed us to answer questions such as: What regiment and/or company had the highest number of burials in the cemetery [Ed note: 19th Indiana with 61 burials]. One question of particular interest to us: Were there any USCT buried in the cemetery? Based on our data the answer is no. But there are a number of quartermaster employees buried in the cemetery; it is possible some were African American, or contraband. Using some regimental records we were interested in cause of death of soldiers buried in the cemetery. More analysis of the data is warranted.

Since the cemetery now had more than 14,000 graves, with many buried after the Civil War, what was the legacy of the Civil War burials in relation to the rest of the Cemetery?

The fact that the original burials date back to Bull Run, the cemetery mirrors the early years of the war, as well as President Lincoln’s time at the cottage.

By visiting the cemetery, what additional insight can visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage gain about Lincoln and the time he spent at the Soldier’s Home?

The cemetery can help interpret the story. Look for H. Johnston, 33rd New York, Co. D., D.O.D. August 2, 1861 or John Williams, 3d Excelsior, Co. G., D.O.D. August 3, 1861. These represent two of the earliest burials in the cemetery, likely wounded at Bull Run. Other graves can be used to follow the war’s progress, and Lincoln’s time at the Cottage.

What other historical projects like this have you overseen?

My classes have undertaken numerous projects using public history (http://www.ciconline.org/Resource/hands-on-with-history).

Anything else you think is crucial for the public to understand about this project? Anyone in particular who played a key role in the project?

Public history and public education can partner in useful and creative ways. My students get the thanks for the countless hours of work on the database.

***

Today, school groups and other life-long learners can learn much about the Civil War and Lincoln from a visit to the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. With a visit to the cemetery, students can more fully realize the cost of war, and understand how cemeteries became not only a repository for the dead, but also places for survivors and family of the dead to mourn and reflect upon the meaning of death and sacrifice.

Visitors can also get a better idea of the struggles Lincoln faced as president. As Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln made a lot of important decisions regarding the Civil War, knowing that many of his orders would result in death and suffering. Many of those first buried at the cemetery were killed as a result of the First Battle of Bull Run, where the Union Army was ill prepared and perhaps went into battle too quickly before becoming adequately trained. Each Union advance into Virginia resulted in increasing Union casualties. Lincoln reflected on this loss during his time at the Cottage, and was known on occasions to visit the cemetery, reciting poetry as he walked among the graves. Visitors today can walk in Lincoln’s footsteps, reflecting on Lincoln’s toughest decisions he made while here at the Soldiers’ Home. For example, as Washington’s local NBC Affiliate NBC4 demonstrated, reflecting on the Gettysburg Address on the grounds of the cemetery gives added meaning to the ideas and words Lincoln articulated at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in November 1863.

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