When Nadine Mironchuk began to learn the history of the Garden Cemetery and the Civil War veterans buried there, she said it unlocked a responsibility within her to remember those there even when the rest of the city had forgotten them completely.
And she was as guilty as anyone else at one time, she said.
Now, she and Chelsea DAV Past Cmdr. Jim Tanner spend their days before Memorial Day inside the cemetery, fixing it up and visiting with anyone who wishes to know more.
They’ve done that for 28 years this year.
“I didn’t know anything about the cemetery,” she said, noting that she had been very involved in the City and had written for Chelsea newspapers. “I never really stopped by here. I had no idea about it, but when the City went into receivership in the 1990s, it happened that my nephew, Richard Campbell, wanted to do his Eagle Scout project here. He told us he wanted to clean it up, and we fell on the floor laughing. When we got back up off the floor, we told him to paint a crosswalk instead. But he still wanted to do it, so we all helped him out.”
What transpired was an epic cleanup of the long-neglected cemetery.
Mironchuk said they took out mounds of trash as high as a three-decker for a period of six weeks before Memorial Day in the 1990s.
The cemetery was a gem of the City at one time, established in 1841, and designed after the garden cemeteries concept. It was actually designed by the same folks who did Mt. Auburn and Forest Hills, and at one time – like those cemeteries – it actually had a duck pond on the south side (that was filled in after the Civil War). Staring in the 1970s, when the last burials occurred there, the property fell into disrepair. There was no grass, trash was strewn everywhere, and the stones had all been torn down or knocked down. There was drug use, homeless people living in the cemetery, and likely a lot of crime that went unreported.
After the service project, Mironchuk was driven to do a great amount of research on the cemetery and is probably the best authority on those buried there, particularly the veterans.
During that research, she said it was the reading of General Logan’s Orders for the first Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) that moved her – where he said that we should never forget those who served in that war, the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States.
“I do now what General Logan asked me to do, come here and put flowers and flags on the graves and remember what these people did,” she said. “I take his orders quite literally. They did their job fighting for freedom, and now it’s our turn…The story here now is the Memorial Day ceremony at Garden Cemetery has been unbroken since 1868 – the first Decoration Day. We don’t and won’t let it be broken in our time.”
And that’s why she and Tanner spend time decorating the graves of the men who died in the Civil War.
Mironchuk said 6,000 men answered the call in Chelsea, which is a high number compared to some other areas around the area. They mustered in at Camp Meigs in West Roxbury and made their way to Washington, D.C., where they met the Union Army in Virginia just before the First Battle of Bull Run.
In fact, she said, the first Chelsea deaths came before Bull Run at Blackburn’s Ford, where 10 Chelsea men died during a conflict three days before Bull Run.
“The town was shocked,” she said. “The mayor got on a train and went down there to see what happened and how he could help. He also went down there to help get good information back to families in Chelsea by telegraph.”
Chelsea men fought in the Peninsula Campaign, Williamsburg, Mechanicsville, Yorktown, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, The Wilderness, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. She said many Chelsea men were taken prisoner and went to the Andersonville Camp, where they died.
There are about 75 Civil War dead buried in the Garden Cemetery, and many are only memorial stones – as their remains were never recovered from the battlefield graves.
One example is Lawrence Kelly, a 24-year-old printer from Chelsea who died at Gettysburg. Kelly had been captured at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and during a prisoner exchange, he was released and paroled. Instead of coming back, he re-joined the Union Army and fought again in campaigns that included Gettysburg where he was killed.
His memorial stone in the Garden Cemetery reads, sadly, “A mother’s only child.”
The Garden Cemetery today is in much better shape than it was 20 years ago, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Mironchuk said a new, secure fence is of high priority due to the threat of vandals.
What’s more important is knowing and remembering, though – she said.
“It’s hard to conceive these people who went to war in the Civil War and saved a country that became the homeland for so many people – the last best hope for the world,” she said. “If you dig deep, you’ll understand the motives and reasons for what they did, and they did this for the millions and millions and millions of people who had yet to come. I didn’t know anything about this cemetery or the Civil War. The people who come to Chelsea wouldn’t know about the war or the Garden Cemetery either. They’ll be just as in the dark about it as I was most of my life. Chelsea has always been on the vanguard. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised 6,000 served and so many of them died for us.”