The small headstone at the Major Adams Cemetery was crusted over with lichen and nigh impossible to read.
Joe Kennedy tried to scrape away some of the decades of dried fungus barehanded until the faint impression of a name came forth.
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Was it Thomas Moore, a private with the Fifth Iowa Cavalry?
Or Thomas Mann, a private with the Seventh Minnesota Infantry and the first white homesteader on Longboat Key in the late 1800s?
Kennedy double-checked his cemetery chart.
“There used to be a thing called ‘Cemetery Day,’ ” he said. “Families would come out once a year, wash headstones, pull weeds, straighten up the place.”
Neglected and strewn with debris, the Adams cemetery, at Third Street West and Martin Luther King Avenue, deserves such caretaking.
It is hallowed ground, the resting place of at least 21 Civil War veterans -- 13 Confederate, eight Union -- beneath four acres of ancient live oaks whose peacefulness belie the tumult these men knew 150 years ago.
Chronicling their histories has been Kennedy’s passion.
More than 100 known Civil War veterans are interred in more than two dozen cemeteries around Manatee County from Palma Sola to Palmetto to Parrish. The majority fought for the Confederacy.
Kennedy, whose Georgia ancestors fought in the Civil War, is the historian for Bradenton’s Robert E. Lee Camp No. 1383 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“Enough of the veterans buried in Manatee County have descendants here, but what about the ones who came here, had no family and died in an unmarked grave?” said Kennedy, 56. “I’m just trying to bring back a soldier’s memory, a life, a legacy.”
His mission has taken him from aged headstones to old newspaper obituaries, Confederate pension records, family archives and invaluable books on local history like “The Singing River,” “The Edge of Wilderness” and “Lures of Manatee.”
After the cessation of hostilities in 1865, the majority of veterans came in caravans of families through the late 1800s from southern states east of the Mississippi, according to Kennedy.
“The areas they were from were either devastated by the war or they simply wanted a new start,” said the Anna Maria Island native. “They wanted a new frontier.”
Manatee County was that.
Formed in 1855, it was a wide open expanse of land that still included what is now DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highland, Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
The 1860 census showed 867 people, slaves included, 190 of whom worked the historic Gamble Mansion plantation. Much of the population was still concentrated along the Manatee River.
What many of those veterans did was help shape Manatee County.
Which is why Cathy Slusser, deputy director of Historical Resources for the Manatee County Clerk, relates to Kennedy’s efforts.
She recalled visiting a St. Simon’s Island, Ga., cemetery as a St. Petersburg middle school student and recognizing names on gravestones of settlers she’d read about in Eugenia Price’s historical novels.
“It clicked. These are real people,” Slusser said. “The same applies to the Civil War veterans buried here. They were people who built our community, who formed churches, who taught school, who served on city councils and county commissions.
“They are all real people. No matter which side they fought for, they were willing to risk their lives for what they believed in. Just for that they deserve to have their graves preserved and respected.”
Their headstones resonate with names of families whose roots are deeply intertwined with Manatee County.
Just a few of the many are:
n Peter Stuart Harllee, a private with the 8th South Carolina Infantry, interred in Palmetto’s 10th Street Cemetery. His descendants became community leaders in agriculture, education and state politics.
n Samuel Sparks Lamb, a private with the 37th Mississippi Infantry and a South Carolina native. He founded and planned out the city of Palmetto, donating land for churches, a library and a cemetery, and is interred in the 10th Street Cemetery.
n Augustus Ashbel Gullett, a private with the 4th Mississippi Cavalry who fought under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, is in Palm View Cemetery. Gullett Elementary School is named for his son, Benjamin David Gullett, Manatee County’s school superintendent from 1916-33.
n William Iredell Turner, a Virginian and a major with the 8th Florida Infantry, founded Bradenton in 1878 and is interred in Parrish Cemetery.
n William Taylor DeSear, a private in the 62nd Alabama Infantry, is in Gillette Cemetery. His descendants started a grocery store in Samoset in 1947 that grew into an appliance store chain that lasted 62 years.
DeSear was Ashley Liebel’s maternal great-great grandfather and her family visits the gravesite often.
“Most people have mixed emotions (about the Civil War) because of the slavery issue, but my great-great grandfather was an average Joe,” said the 42-year-old mother of three. “He was not wealthy, yet fought for a way of life. I’m very proud of it.
“It’s nice having that history in this area. It’s in my blood and you want to pass that on.”
Such history flows through the veins of pharmacist Robert Pelot.
His great-great grandfather, John Cooper Pelot, a Methodist minister and member of the Florida Secession Convention who served in the 2nd Florida Cavalry, is interred in the Manatee Burial Grounds, as is his son, Dr. John Crews Pelot, a colonel with the Florida Cavalry and assistant surgeon at Georgia’s Andersonville Prison.
Their descendants have served the community in many ways, most notably the Pelot drug store that dates back to 1894 in old Manatee.
“There’s a lot of distortion about the Civil War and the issues why it was fought, but it’s important to remember these men,” said Robert Pelot, 63. “I have a lot of respect for them, even if some of their beliefs were wrong.
“Slavery was dead wrong. But they still deserve honor.”
Amen to that, said George Harrison, whose sons Tom and Joe are his law partners in the firm Harrison, Kirkland, Pratt & McGuire.
His great uncles were Dr. John William Harrison, a surgeon, and Corp. Micajah (Mick-kayjuh) Berry Harrison, both with the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry.
They are interred at Parrish Cemetery, but their memory lives on.
“We have a family reunion every summer (in Greenville, S.C.) and it’s part of keeping our history and heritage alive,” said George Harrison, 88. “But not a lot of people are interested in history. It died with the last generation, seems like.”
Evelyn Hoskins, Harrison’s first cousin and a 35-year member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has been active in Manatee County since 1914, agrees.
Her grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Mason, a private with the 15th Alabama Cavalry, is interred in the 10th Street Cemetery.
The Harrisons buried in Parrish were also her kin.
The Civil War’s sesquicentennial makes her reflect, and she wishes more of the public understood the anniversary’s local relevance.
“We have a rich history here, but people don’t give it much thought. They’ll see it on the news and go, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and that’s it. It’s unfortunate,” said Hoskins, 68. “I wish more people knew about it.”
Sam Butler Reid Jr. wishes he did, too.
“Joe Kennedy knows more about my family history than I do,” joked the North River Fire District captain.
He is named for his great-great grandfather and his great-grandfather.
The first Samuel Butler Reid was the first surveyor in Manatee when it was still part of Hillsborough County. His son, who shared the same name, was born here in 1845, fought with the 29th Georgia Infantry after the family moved back to Thomasville, Ga., then returned to Manatee County in 1869.
He is interred in Fortner Cemetery in Parrish.
That legacy is sacred to Sam Butler Reid Jr.
“I just want my family name to be remembered, for my sons, for my grandchildren,” the 58-year-old said. “This is where we came from. This is where we were. This is what came out of it.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.