When you think of the American Civil War you probably don’t think of Oklahoma. However, Oklahoma is where a great many of the men who survived that bloody conflict came to live, and die, in years following the war.
I was privileged to have been born and raised in Duncan, OK, the county seat for Stephens County (shout out to the DHS class of ’76!). From childhood I’ve had a great interest in the Civil War and in years past did quite a bit of research regarding what happened to that war’s veterans. Naturally, most of my research focused on the men buried in Stephens County. My efforts took me not merely to published and online resources, but into countless hours going through archived papers, personal and official documents, pension records, genealogical resources, correspondence with descendants, and, locating, walking, and photographing every cemetery that could still be found to exist in Stephens County.
Though it has been several years since I stopped my research, my interest in the subject has not faded in the least and, of course, the effects of that war are still ever so powerfully with us today. And so, since today marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I’ve decided to share with you in brief, weekly posts, on Tuesdays, some of what I’ve learned from my research.
The vast majority of these posts will highlight the experiences, in war and after, of individual veterans, both Union and Confederate, buried in Stephens County, OK. However, to start this series, I’m reproducing an article that appeared in the Aug. 1, 2004 issue of the Duncan Banner, my hometown’s newspaper. This article was the result of an interview conducted by the article’s author, Rita Chandler. Though slightly dated now and conducted before I ceased my research, it still stands as a good summary of my work in Stephens County.
One final note. My intent in sharing these posts on the Civil War is not merely to share a bit of history with those who are history-lovers, but to cause us all to humbly pause and consider the horrific cost and terrible effects of war, any war, involving anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Prayer would be the response I would hope these posts elicit most often, along with a heightened resolve to “…the best of your ability, [to] live at peace with all people.” (Romans 12:18 CEB)
Civil War veterans buried in Stephens County, OK
For former Duncan resident David Smith, it all started with a story that was passed on by his grandfather.
“A lot of creeks have fed that river of interest,” Smith said referring to his fascination with the Civil War and its veterans. “I suppose the first creek was surely my grandfather, Brown Wadsworth Smith, telling me about how his father had been a Confederate soldier.”
Smith’s great-grandfather, William Anderson Smith, had been captured during the Civil War by the Union Army and was held as a prisoner of war.
“My great-grandfather hadn’t related anything of his service to my grandfather except a single, fascinating story — exactly how he had become a Union POW,” he said. “Now, my grandfather was passing this story on to me, and from that moment, I was hooked on anything and everything related to the Civil War.”
David Smith has since been able to learn even more about his great-grandfather and his experiences as a Confederate soldier.
Smith’s mother’s ancestors were also cavalry soldiers [mounted infantry, actually] from southwest Tennessee.
“My mother’s ancestors were cavalry [er, mounted infantry] men with the Union Army in Tennessee,” he said. “So, of course, the knowledge that my parents’ ancestors had served in similar branches of service, from the same state but on opposite sides, fueled my interest.”
Smith’s interest in Civil War veterans buried in Stephens County grew as a teenager.
“I remember thinking how odd it was that the beautiful monuments in the city park alongside Highway 81 listed veterans of wars only as far back as the Spanish-American War,” he said. “Why weren’t Civil War veterans listed?”
Smith then made up his mind to fill in what he sensed to be a gap in the county’s historical record.
“After all, no small number of the men who worked the Chisholm Trail were Civil War veterans, and a large percentage of Stephens County’s earliest pioneers had fought in the Civil War,” he said.
“We all owe some debt. At the very least, a bit of acknowledgment and respect to all of our country’s veterans.”
Smith enjoys researching local Civil War veterans because they were “just ordinary men.”
“None of them, to my knowledge, were well-known heroes,” he said. “The well-known figures always receive the press and will be remembered for years to come. But it’s the average, ordinary guys who are most quickly and easily forgotten.”
Smith said many veterans had lost most, if not all, of their possessions in the war and eventually moved to Oklahoma with the hopes of putting the past behind them and making a new start toward a better future.
“It’s not uncommon to find graves in many states filled with men from one side or the other,” he said. “Here in Oklahoma, you can find Confederates and Federals buried very close to one another in the same cemetery.”
At the beginning of his research, Smith kept a record of every gravestone of men who were born before 1851 he came across in the county.
“It’s something over 500 men,” he said. “Since the Civil War was from 1861 to 1865, a man born in early 1850 would have been just over 15 years old at the end of the war. And, I’ve found that no small number of the men I know to have been veterans buried in the county began, or began and ended, their service in their teen years — some of them even being born between 1848 and 1851.”
Smith said with certainty that there are at least 240 Civil War veterans buried in Stephens County.
“Over 40 of them I know to have been Union men, and over 140 of them I know to have served with the Confederacy,” he said. “The remainder, about 50 to 60 men, I know were veterans but am not sure as to which side they fought for, yet.”
There are about 40 known cemeteries in Stephens County and at least 25 of them have Civil War veterans buried in them.
“By ‘known cemeteries’ I mean you can still find them today,” he said. “The majority of the Civil War veterans buried in the county can be found in the Duncan [Municipal] cemetery, with over 60 veterans; the Marlow cemetery, with over 60 veterans; and the Old Fairlawn cemetery [in Comanche], with about 30 veterans.”
Smith said there are many more graves that have yet to be discovered.
“There are 70 more men I know were Civil War veterans who lived in Stephens County late in life, but I have not yet found their graves,” he said. “Some of them probably moved from Stephens County and are buried elsewhere, or they are buried in Stephens County but their graves have simply not yet been found.”
One possibility is that some of the graves were unmarked to begin with or their grave markers have long since deteriorated.
“It’s also possible that they’re buried in cemeteries long since abandoned and forgotten and are unknown to us today,” he said. “Whether they were small, family cemeteries or larger, public ones.”
The Stephens County veterans served in units from about 20 different states.
“Texas is by far the most commonly represented,” he said. “Service in units from Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri make up the majority of the remaining states represented.”
Smith said he had no particular favorite among the stories of the veterans he’s researched. “To me, their stories all blend together to paint the canvas of early Stephens County,” he said. “To single out one man from the many would be to change a symphony into a solo.”
Smith also said there are plenty of interesting stories that stand well on their own.
“Since there isn’t any particularly ‘famous’ veteran buried in the county,” he said, “I like to think the music of the lives of the county’s earliest ancestors as a harmony made up of the blending of common, ordinary lives.”
Smith, who lives in Baytown, Texas, was born and raised in Duncan.
“My wife, Debbie, and I left Duncan in July 1983, when I became the preaching minister at the Church of Christ in Cyril,” he said. “Preaching has been my life’s work ever since, and I currently serve as the preaching minister with the Missouri Street Church of Christ in Baytown.”
Smith has two children, Jonathan, 21, and Amber, 19.
by Rita Chandler; Duncan Banner; Sun., 8/1/2004