Headstones and the Stories Left Untold
Many of us will spend part of this Memorial Day weekend at a cemetery, visiting the graves of relatives, placing wreaths or flags, or just remembering the generations of sacrifice represented by the rows of marble and granite stones. It is, as others have suggested, altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
In a cemetery near my home there’s the grave of Colonel Charles DeWitt Anderson (1827-1901). His grave is marked solely by a modern, VA-issued headstone (right), listing his name, rank, regiment and birth and death dates. Those notations mean little to the casual passerby, and I doubt many people who pass Anderson’s plot will bother to look further into his story. Anderson’s best-known Civil War service is his defense, and subsequent controversial surrender, of Fort Gaines at the entrance to Mobile Bay in August 1864. The capitulation of Fort Gaines enabled the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, under the command of David Farragut, to then focus its attention on Fort Morgan on the opposite side of the channel, which Farragut successfully passed soon thereafter. Anderson’s wartime record is a significant and active one, if not especially glorious.
None of that story, of course, is reflected on his headstone. Here are some other facts about Charles DeWitt Anderson that don’t fit on a slab of grey marble:
- When he was a boy, in 1839, his family emigrated by sea to the newly-established Republic of Texas. Anderson’s parents died at sea, and he and his brother were left orphans in a new land where they knew no one. They were adopted and raised by the rector of the Episcopal church here.
- Anderson was the first Texan appointed to West Point; his application was endorsed by Senator Sam Houston
- He left West Point after his freshman year, having struggled academically, but eventually received a direct commission into the artillery in 1856.
- After the war, he used his engineering training in the construction harbor and river improvements for the government. After settling in Texas he served two terms as the city engineer for Austin.
- After moving to Galveston, he served as engineer on a new U.S. customs, house (now demolished).
- Anderson spent the last six years of his life again on the federal payroll, as keeper of the Fort Point Lighthouse.
From his obituary in the Galveston Daily News, November 22, 1901:
Colonel C. A. [sic.] Anderson, the venerable keeper of the Fort Point light house [right] , died yesterday morning at 10 o’clock at the light house, aged 74 years. The body was brought to the city on the tug Cynthia and is now at Levy Bros. undertaking parlors. The funeral arrangements had not been made last night pending the arrival of relatives from the interior.
In the steel structural light house where the aged keeper and his devoted wife were imprisoned during the awful storm of September 8, 1900, he passed away after a lingering illness. He had suffered an attack of the grip shortly before the storm and never fully recovered his health. For six years he has cared for the Fort Point light and faithful to the last he insisted on remaining near where he could direct the mariners in guiding their ships into the harbor. The deceased was an honored soldier in the Confederate army and won distinction in the long struggle between the States. He lived a noble life and was honored and esteemed by all who knew him.
At the surrender [of Fort Gaines] he was given his choice to surrender to the army or the navy, and he decided to give his sword to Admiral Farragut. The sword was a gift of a number of friends and a few years later it was returned to Colonel Anderson with the following inscription engraved on the blade: “Returned to Colonel C. D. Anderson by Admiral Farragut for his Gallant Defence of Fort Gaines, April 8, 1864”
So this Memorial Day, let us all remember that headstones simply don’t tell the full story.