New light is shed on ‘The Trench” in the Minden Cemetery

For many years I have had the privilege of serving on the board of the Minden Cemetery Association under the leadership of men such as Frank Griffith, Thad Andress and, for more years that can be named, Ty Pendergrass.

I also had the opportunity to work with fellow board member Schelley Brown-Francis as she for several years staged the wonderful Ghost Walks that brought to life our past through stories of the residents in the cemetery, ala “Our Town.”
During those years I have become familiar with many of the traditional stories associated with the burial ground.

Today’s article is some “new” information about one of the best-known stories of the cemetery, the “Confederate Trench.”

The Minden Cemetery dates to the late 1850s when the body of Mrs. Smith was moved from its burial spot near Murrell’s Tan Yard (likely in the area of Webb Court) to a new plat of land donated by Mrs. John L. Lewis to the town for a cemetery, located on the rear of her property (the Lewis house likely sat near the site of the old Ron-Rob Pontiac building downtown.)

It has been used for local burials for nearly 170 years. One haunting story always associated with the cemetery is the story of the unknown Confederate soldiers buried in 1864 in an extended area of unmarked graves and originally marked with simple wooden crosses.

The traditional story, to my knowledge, largely existed only in oral tradition and it was told along these lines:
In the aftermath of the Battle of Mansfield, the Confederate armies who marched north to Arkansas stopped in Minden, where there was a large Quartermasters Depot.

They left in care of the residents of Minden many soldiers sick or wounded after the battle. Since there was no hospital here, the soldiers were quartered in local homes and cared for by local residents.

Sadly, many of those men died while being cared for here. We know this for two reasons, the first being the unmarked graves already mentioned and the second, one of the few written sources confirming the troops being housed in local homes.

Unlike those unfortunate soldiers buried here in unmarked graves, at least one soldier who died here was returned to his family in Texas.

That soldier was being cared for by Mrs. Edwin Fay (the local soldier in the Minden Rangers who later in life became Superintendent of Education for the State of Louisiana and whose letters compose the book This Infernal War, edited by Bell I. Wiley.)

Mrs. Fay had been told by this soldier about his home and when he passed away in her care, she arranged to have his body shipped back to his family.

In the Vertical File of the Webster Parish Library, at one time, there was a thank you letter written by the family of the deceased soldier to Mrs. Fay.

Beyond that, our knowledge about the “trench,” as it came to be called, located in the southwestern rear area of the graveyard comes mostly from stories handed down by local residents.

One of the first local mentions in print came in the Centennial Edition of the Webster Signal-Tribune published on December 31, 1934.

In their account of the history of the cemetery, the writers included this mention:

“Just at the brow of the hill, facing the setting sun, is the last camping grounds of 21 Confederate soldiers.” That was followed by this poem:
No rumor of the foe’s advance
Now swells upon the wind;
No troubled thought of midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind:
No vision of the morrow’s strife
The warrior’s dream alarms;
No braying horn or screaming fife
At dawn shall call to arms

A second account of the trench occurs in the aftermath the killer tornado that struck Minden on May 1, 1933.

That storm wreaked havoc on the cemetery, toppling markers, uprooting fences surrounding family plots and blowing over mausoleums. One of the plots severely damaged was that of the Webb family.

Several massive stones were blown over and had to be replaced.

The local United Daughters of the Confederacy were given the upper section of one of those obelisk shaped monuments and it was repurposed into a smaller obelisk which was erected on the site of the Confederate burials to provide a marker.

Beyond those two accounts, we had very little information.

However, this week, I stumbled across an almost contemporary account of the trench from the Louisiana Democrat, published at Alexandria, of March 20, 1867.

The purpose of the article was to bemoan the neglect of cemeteries and the honoring of the dead (a theme that has recurred in all cemeteries including ours here in Minden.) In that discussion the writer included the following information:

“We remember visiting a year ago the burial-ground at Minden. It is a pretty, retired spot, for which Nature has done much – Art very little. But the principle point of interest to us was the number of Confederate graves.

“Side by side in one long unbroken line, farther than the eye could reach they stretched across the enclosure – not a name on one of them – nothing but a straight stick driven down at the head and the foot to mark the spot where rested the last hope of some widowed mother, the cherished Benjamin of some white-haired patriarch , or the staff and stay of some broken-hearted wife.

“At any rate, ‘somebody’s darling’ lay in each of those warm mounds, and alas for her, she will never know which one.
“On all those graves, there’s not a single line:

To tell fond friends – Here the loved dust reposes
In vain Affection seeks some spot to find
Where trembling hands may strew memorial roses
On all alike the long grass rustling waves
All look alike – those crowded nameless graves

“We were told that during the Spring and early Summer of ’64 there were many troops camped in and around Minden; and the place, always unhealthy, was peculiarly so that year and fever became almost an epidemic among them.

“Every day for weeks the funeral bell tolled, and the answer to a stranger’s inquiry was always the careless response ‘another soldier dead!’

“And so, after the perils of the battlefield, the hardships of the camp, and the untold untellable sufferings of the hospital were over, these true patriots, who had risked and lost all for the love of country, were rewarded by a careless burial in a nameless grave, forgotten by all except the few sad hearts to which each one was bound by some tie of interest or affection.”

Several facts jump out when comparing this account to local tradition. The first is that the deaths came because of disease, not battle related causes, and disease encountered in the camp, not while being nursed in homes.
The deaths coming from illness is likely, after all, disease was far and away the leading cause of death during the Civil War, far outstripping battle injuries.

However, a problem arises because military records do not indicate any large encampments near Minden at that point of 1864.

Later that year, starting in November, more than 10,000 troops were house near Minden in the camps collectively named Camp Magruder.

Further research to clarify this contradiction is necessary.

Another is the scope of the number of graves indicated by the author. We cannot tell if he was simply employing hyperbole, to drive home his point, or he was being accurate, but his “unbroken line farther than the eye could reach” seems to describe many more than the traditional 21 graves.

Again, one day this contradiction may be solvable as for many years it has been the desire of the Cemetery Association to employ ground radar to pinpoint the location of the scores of “lost graves” either through the tornado or the sinkage that plagues the cemetery.

The cost has prevented this from happening but if we can get that accomplished someday, perhaps, we will find many more graves in that row than we expected.

The 1867 writer’s claim of many more deaths seems backed up by his contention of funeral bells “every day for weeks.”
So, when we learn, we also acquire new questions to resolve. Of course, this is just one of the many fascinating stories from the Minden Cemetery.

Schelley told so many of those stories in her Ghost Walk and for those of you that miss those presentations, there are some books you might like to see. Schelley has complied two volumes (with others in the works) telling the stories of many of those buried in the Minden Cemetery – those great and small. An image of one of those books is with this story.

So, I encourage you to contact the Dorcheat Museum if you are interested and learn more about this and other Echoes of our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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