The War of 1812 is sometimes called the second war for independence. It’s also called the forgotten war, as it was overshadowed fifty years later by a much bloodier war. Kentuckians were an important part of the 1812 war effort. The Commonwealth contributed more to the casualty list than any other state. Soldiers buried in western Kentucky fought in campaigns from Canada to New Orleans, with a few under the command of then-General and future president Andrew Jackson. Angela Hatton went searching for their graves.
At the intersection of a corn field and soybean field west of Murray in Calloway County, an old cedar tree marks the Waterfield Cemetery. It’s visible from the road, but if you’re not looking for it, you’ll miss the four white headstones clustered around the base of the tree. And on a warm, windy morning, walking across the fields to get there involves fording high grass and avoiding poison ivy. The cemetery is the final resting place of two War of 1812 veterans, James Warterfield (the family later dropped the "r"), and William Doors, his brother-in-law.
Greg Miller, a regional military historian who lives in Murray, knows these graves well. “My mother’s side, she was a Lawrence, and some of Lawrence relatives are Doors," he said.
Miller read off the inscription on William Doors' headstone: “February the third, 1792, died February the 10th, 1883, and it doesn’t have his military service, but I have it on a paper at home.”
Miller petitions the U. S. Department of Defense for new military markers for the graves of War of 1812 soldiers whose old headstones have been destroyed or are illegible. The stones in the Waterfield Cemetery are well-preserved, but time has been unkind to many soldiers’ graves.
“But most of these cemeteries, probably sometimes anywhere from a quarter to three-quarters could be marked with nothing or – nowadays maybe nothing – with originally chunks of rock, local, like conglomerate and sandstone from around here," said Miller.
He said graves may also sink over time, and be covered over with dirt by landowners trying to level out land. As markers deteriorate, Millers said finding graves becomes much harder.
“There are some old maps of this cemetery, but (it's) mainly just research," he said.
Back in his living room, Miller spread out dozens of copies of war-related records he’s collected. He’s spent countless hours uncovering these forgotten veterans. Sometimes that involves actual digging, like last spring when Miller went searching in Marshall County for the grave of an 1812 soldier named Stringer.
“That’s one that had been told about from a relative. Gradually tracked down the property owner, and even though it didn’t show up on any cemetery records for Marshall County. Went out there with her, showed me where it was," he said. "Then I came back, and we started prodding the ground, me and another individual. We started prodding the ground and brought a couple of main chunks of the broken stone up, and let it rain on it, and then photographed it a few times."
Then the paperwork begins.
“You need to have a copy, something, out of their service record to prove that they had military service, a pension record. Which, lot of times, some of these old ones, there’s not much of a service record surviving, but some kind of documentation like that," he said.
But not just any long-dead veteran can get a marker. It helps if the requester is a next of kin. And if there’s a headstone at the grave already, it must be illegible.
“Some of them though, you got dirt on there, or I’ve seen people use flour, put on there and rub on there and wipe it off, and that left inside, to read ‘em, and yeah, that would be definitely illegible," Miller explained.
Miller is a veteran himself, and he saids he feels more connected to history when he learns the names of the men who fought America’s wars. He keeps a list of all the 1812 soldiers he’s found in this region. It’s short. Only around a dozen names. Few 1812 soldiers found their final resting places in the area, because the Jackson Purchase wasn’t opened to settlement until the mid 1820's, when most veterans had already settled down elsewhere. Still, Miller said that these graves shouldn’t be forgotten.
“It’s one of the most important things for their military service," he said.
This winter Miller’s headed out to Land Between the Lakes to set two more military headstones for 1812 soldiers. He’s already got the markers ready.