This July 4th marked 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg, an event many call the turning point of the Civil War. I was surprised to learn there is a cemetery in Seattle where nearly 600 Civil War veterans are buried. Just outside of Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery, where martial arts movie stars Bruce and Brandon Lee are buried, is the small, easy to miss, Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery – established in 1896.
“If you were in the Civil War and you died in Massachusetts in the 1890’s, chances are you got buried in a government cemetery, all paid for and everything,” says writer and Seattle history expert Feliks Banel. “This far west, far away from the constitution, far away from Washington, D.C. you had to form a fraternal organization like the Grand Army of the Republic as a way of taking care of each other. So members of the Oddfellows in Seattle, who were also Civil War vets, they heard about this national organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, formed their own local chapter and by the 1890’s got together with four other local chapters and they built this cemetery here.”
But the Grand Army of the Republic gave the cemetery to the city parks department in 1922, and it was often neglected.
Puyallup’s Lee Corbin is a member of The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“I was doing some research on Medal of Honor recipients from the Civil War and I discovered that there was one buried here in the cemetery that did not have an appropriate marker that showed he was a Medal of Honor recipient. So I ordered a new stone for him and I was looking around and I said, there’s a lot of guys who need new stones up here. Cracked, missing, the names were misspelled. Very few of them had the regiment that the people had served in during the war. So I got permission from the Seattle Parks Department and we replaced 100 of the gravestones.”
Feliks says between 1900 and 1950, there were huge Memorial Day celebrations at the cemetery. But as the years went on, the cemetery was forgotten.
“I’ve heard horror stories of this being all overgrown with little pathways through where street people would live,” says Lee. “There are stories of finding grave markers over at some of these houses being used as (stepping) stones.”
But 15 years ago, the neighbors started helping with the grounds. Lee and his young daughter place a flag on every grave each Memorial Day, and a neighbor has been raising and lowering the American flag every day since 1997. Even that flagpole has historical significance.
“I believe it used to be during the World’s Fair, at Seattle Center,” Lee says. “This was one of the flagpoles that they had in storage and the city gave it to us.”
In 1860, only 10,000 non-Native Americans lived in Washington state. By 1890, there were 350,000 who had come west to make a life for themselves in undiscovered territory. All of the Civil War veterans buried in this cemetery made that trek, including a few noteworthy men.
“The founder of the Seattle Post, Benson L. Northup, which eventually became the Seattle PI, he’s buried here. Here’s Frank Bois, he’s our Medal of Honor Recipient, and he started out in the 10th Massachusetts infantry.”
Feliks wishes more people knew about the cemetery.
“It would be cool to find a way to elevate these kinds of stories. Everyone kind of thinks about Seattle as coffee and grunge, and Starbucks and Microsoft. That’s only the last 25 years. There’s so much more great history here that goes back many hundreds of years. There are great stories like this cemetery. Each of these little headstones here represents somebody who came here for a reason. They weren’t born here. They came out with this massive migration to make the community we live in now.”
He tells a more recent story about the cemetery.
“Seems like every ten or 15 years some kind of controversy erupts here, some kind of mystery. There was the big dog park controversy of the 90’s. They wanted to turn this into a dog park. The idea of just pairing a cemetery with a dog park? I don’t know who thought of that. It was floated in, like, 1996.”
Now that the city is maintaining the grounds, Lee doesn’t come out as much. But the cemetery continues to be an important place for him.
“I just don’t want these guys to be forgotten, basically. I think having gone through the Civil War was probably one of the most amazing time periods to have gone through, for them. Being a veteran myself, I like to see these guys honored properly.”