SIOUX CITY | Brilliant fall sunshine bears down on ground and aging white military tombstones that had for years been in the dark.
Grass is vacant from spots where shade from three old, broken trees had dominated for decades. Now reduced to stumps and removed, those trees also shaded this section of Floyd Cemetery in which 72 Civil War veterans are buried.
A refurbishment and research project by Sioux City cemetery staff and West High School students could shine new light, literally and figuratively, on this section, established by the city in 1885 for the Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 22 as the final resting spot for former Union soldiers.
"Now we're trying to open it up and let people see there are a lot more guys here, a lot more history here," said Tim Tushla, city cemeteries supervisor.
Removing a cedar and two hackberry trees was just the beginning.
Sometime yet this fall, 20 white marble tombstones will be installed on veterans' graves that currently are unmarked. The city plans to refurbish this section, replacing a sidewalk and concrete steps, fixing up a gazebo, illuminating a flagpole and planting grass and flowers.
In the meantime, some 200 West High students of teachers Jan George and Rachelle Barnum are researching the men buried here, hoping to learn when they came to Sioux City, what they did here and whether they have relatives living in the area.
"We're hitting a lot of brick walls, but some of the kids are finding some neat things," Barnum, who teaches American history and world cultures, said of the students' research efforts thus far.
The wheels began turning on this project a little more than a year ago, when Roy Linn, of Correctionville, Iowa, walked into Tushla's office. The great-grandson of a civil war soldier, Linn gave Tushla a letter about a Veterans Administration program to provide military gravestones for grave sites that are missing them.
As the state graves registration officer for the Iowa chapter of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, Linn and his wife, Linda, spend hours walking through cemeteries, locating the graves of Civil War veterans and posting their location on a national website of Civil War veteran grave locations.
Floyd Cemetery has 275 Civil War soldiers buried there, and the city's other two cemeteries also have a number of them. With Linn's letter in hand, Tushla immediately thought of Floyd Cemetery's GAR section, the only section in the city's cemeteries dedicated to Civil War veterans. Many open spaces can be found between tombstones.
"We knew we had gaps," Tushla said.
Cemetery administrative assistant Sheri Ross began checking burial records to identify the men buried in the unmarked plots, locating their service records, then verifying those records with the VA. Of the 21 veterans identified in the unmarked graves, all but one was eligible for a free marker under a program that gives cemetery organizations, rather than families, the ability to order stones for soldiers who had served before World War I. The city was unable to find enough information about the other man.
"It was fascinating, the tie to the community, the history," Ross said. "A lot of these guys saw significant action."
It's not certain why these soldiers never received stones when they were buried, she said.
"I believe most that did not have markers did not have family members (here)," Ross said.
The marble stones all have arrived and are in storage at the cemetery, awaiting installation.
Meanwhile, West students continue to scour ancestry websites, old newspaper clippings and public records to find information about the veterans. Junior Austin Dicks said he was excited to work on the research project.
"My family's a big military family," he said. "I love learning about the military back then. They're what made America. They fought to get the rights, to get people the freedom."
Not only are the students learning some unique Sioux City history, they're also learning research skills that will help them in future classes and in college. George, who teaches history and government, said students have made some neat discoveries.
"One just the other day found a picture of the guy in his outfit," George said.
George said that once the research is finished, the classes may compile their findings in a book to present to the cemetery. The information will likely be made available during a rededication ceremony that will take place sometime next spring or summer, once the GAR section has been refurbished and the existing stones have been cleaned and whitened.
"We'll spruce it up, try to make it look good," Tushla said.
Once finished with the GAR section, Tushla said cemetery staff may work on finding other unmarked graves of Civil War veterans and order stones for them, too.