Stories in stone: Messages lost as gravemarkers fade

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, October 7, 2012

— The bloody Battle of Perryville occurred 150 years ago, but Pete Skelly told the story as if it happened last week.

Skelly stood at the grave of Capt. George Bently of Janesville. It was one of three Civil War veterans’ graves Skelly showed to visitors Saturday during the Rock County Historical Society’s annual tour of Oak Hill Cemetery.

Bently, a Chicago & Northwestern railroad agent in civilian life, became commander of Company H of the 21st Wisconsin. The unit comprised many Janesville men who had little training before the battle, Skelly said.

The 21st was stationed in a Kentucky cornfield while a more experienced unit went ahead, Skelly said.

Soon, the Wisconsinites saw their comrades high-tailing it towards them with Confederate forces in pursuit.

The Wisconsin unit tried to hold its ground but was overrun, Skelly said, looking into the distance as if witnessing the battle once again. The fighting became hand-to-hand.

Bently killed one Confederate with his bayonet, then took that man’s rifle and shot another soldier, Skelly said.

It was then that a bullet pierced Bently’s head and killed him.

Bently’s body was taken back to Janesville, and many from Chicago came to attend the funeral. The procession to Oak Hill was said to be miles long.

Bently rests beneath what one account called “an altar of freedom.” It’s a stone monument that stands about 3 feet high. On its top, sculpted into the stone, is a shield, a sword and a kepi, the standard cap of a Civil War soldier.

The monument is badly worn, and the lettering on its side is barely legible.

The same goes for the grave of Lt. William Sargent of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, who died in the Battle of Nashville.

Sargent’s headstone includes a letter inscribed on the reverse side, by a man who later became governor of Minnesota. The letter is illegible.

“You wander here, and you find such wonderful stories that people have long forgotten,” Skelly said.

The stories may last forever, thanks to books and the Internet, but the messages on many graves are fading.

Also on the tour, Laurel Fant of the historical society showed the proper way to clean lichen and grime from headstones.

She demonstrated on a stone where lichen obscured the name.

Fant doused the stone with water, sprayed a cleaner called D/2 and waited about five minutes.

She scrubbed with a plastic-bristled brush. Soon the name appeared: Mrs. Lucy A. Hager, 1811-1867.

Perhaps Mrs. Hager’s stone stands in a fortunate spot, or the stone is of stronger stuff than that of her Civil War contemporaries, because the name stood clear after Fant’s ministrations.

Fant said a number of cleaning agents are approved for gravestones, but bleach, ammonia and muriatic acid should not be used—they eat at the stone.

Cleaning implements should be of wood or plastic, such as a toothbrush or a bamboo skewer.

Taking rubbings of gravestones is now frowned upon, Fant noted. Photography is the preferred way to preserve inscriptions, using something to cast shadows on the stone to bring out the letters.

Fant recently attended a seminar on grave cleaning. One thing she did not learn, and something she said just does not exist, is some kind of coating that would keep the stone from eroding.

Time and the elements, it appears, have no respect for history.

Last updated: 4:53 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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