Service set in stone

By Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery
Monday, November 12, 2007 12:40 PM EST

NILES - A local family's legacy of service to country and community is detailed on a single stone within Silverbrook Cemetery.

William Graves and his son Frank devoted their lives to the care and safety of their fellow Americans.

The senior Graves was born in 1809, in New Hampshire. This is the same year a man, who would play a great part in the history of the Graves family and the nation was born in a log cabin in neighboring Illinois.

Like Abe Lincoln, William Graves seemed to be graced with the public service gene. Like Lincoln, he gave his best to the cause of freedom when his son Frank was killed in battle during the Civil War - one year before Lincoln himself was murdered.

Details of William Graves' life before he came to Niles are sketchy. He did serve as Michigan's Secretary of State from 1853 to 1854, and went on to serve Niles as mayor from 1875 to 1876, and as treasurer for four terms from 1877 to 1880, the year he died.

It is his son Frank who is listed among those who bravely participated in 21 battles of the Civil War with the 8th Michigan Infantry. He held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel from 1861 to 1863, when he was promoted to Colonel.

Born in 1836, Colonel Graves was the youngest member listed as staff of the unit known as the "Wandering Regiment." He died at 28, during the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.

Pictures depicting the battle show just how tragic the battleground was. These were the days of bayonets and hand-to-hand combat up close and very personal. The regiment had already participated in battles held at Port Royal, S. C.; Fort Pulaski, Ga.; Bull Run, Va.; Antietam, Md.; Vicksburg and Jackson, Miss. and Knoxville and Fort Saunders, Tenn., prior to their arrival in the fields of Wilderness, Va.

What kind of man does it take to lead others, many much older than he, on the long treks and through those horrendous battles?

The report of Colonel Graves' final days, as noted in the history of the 8th Michigan Infantry on its Web site gives some insight to the answer:

On the 4th of May (1864) the regiment commenced the campaign with the Army of the Potomac in its advance on Richmond, crossing the Rapidan at Germania Ford on the 5th. The 8th was prominently engaged during the advance in the Wilderness, and lost many brave men. On the 6th its casualties were 99 killed, wounded, and missing, including its commander Colonel Frank Graves, a gallant young officer of much promise, who fell by wounds while commanding his regiment, and was brutally murdered by rebels because he would not submit to indignity and robbery at their hands.

Thus the life of one of the regiment's total enrollment of 1715 was ended. One of 134 killed in action. Eighty-seven of that total number died of their wounds. Seven died in Confederate prisons. Another 181 died of disease. Two hundred and seventy-eight of the 8th Michigan were discharged for their wounds.

So furious were these battles that even the first of the regiment's flags became too battle-scarred to continue as the site dedicated to the Civil War flags suggests:

"The 8th Michigan Infantry's first flag was retired in March of 1863 and sent home to Michigan too worn and battered to continue to represent the valiant regiment."

A second flag was sent as a gift from the citizens of Detroit in March 1863, less than a year before Graves' death. The regiment was proud to see the names of battles they had fought in - called "battle honors" - painted on their new flag. Over the next two years, they would add new honors, seen on the flag's bottom red stripe.

The famous flags can be seen at the State of Michigan's Rally 'Round the Flags webpage: www.sos.state.mi.us/history/museum/explore/ museums/hismus/special/flags/flags3.html

Presenting the flags from the Civil War to the State of Michigan on July 4, 1866, General O. B. Wilcox said:

"Ah! yes, many a hand that vigorously grasped these Flagstaffs and led the van, now lies crumbling in the grave; and not color-bearers alone, but nearly 15,000 others who fought beside them - the flower of Michigan - return not to receive your thanks and the plaudits of their grateful countrymen."

In the History of Berrien County reference is given to William Graves' daughter Belle, who is listed as married to another Civil War veteran, Colonel Henry Morrow, who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg during the hot, sticky days of July Ist, 2nd and 3rd, 1863.

Morrow was a member of the 24th Michigan and was with Meredith's Iron Brigade. During the furious fighting, Morrow was struck in the head by a Confederate bullet. Later, a Confederate surgeon decided that Morrow's scalp wound was "too serious" for him to be marched away as a prisoner-of-war, thereby saving his life.

Many of Niles finest soldiers are buried within the boundaries of Silverbrook Cemetery. We remember them this Veterans Day and will continue to tell their stories.

The Fort Saint Joseph Historical Association will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, in the community room of the Niles District Library, 620 E. Main St., Niles. Candace and Tim Skalla and Ginny Tyler will present "Friends of Silverbrook: History, Restoration and Preservation."

Part of a continuing series on Niles' historic Silverbrook Cemetery, provided by Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery, a group working to preserve and restore the cemetery.