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Historical societies to honor veterans by marking grave sites in Hempfield

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:24 a.m.
Lisa Hays, director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, and Glenn Smeltzer, board member of the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society and a member of the county historical society, visit the burial site of Civil War Col. Richard Coulter at St. Clair Cemetery near Greensburg on Friday, May 17, 2013.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Lisa Hays, director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, and Glenn Smeltzer, board member of the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society and a member of the county historical society, visit the burial site of Civil War Col. Richard Coulter at St. Clair Cemetery near Greensburg on Friday, May 17, 2013.

They fought in some of the biggest battles of the bloodiest conflict in American history.

They were wounded and killed on the battlefields of Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Bull Run.

They kept a young nation from tearing itself apart and sacrificed for the freedom of others.

And they are not forgotten.

As the nation continues to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Westmoreland County and Baltzer Meyer historical societies will spend Sunday afternoon marking the grave sites of some of the roughly 180 Civil War veterans interred at St. Clair Cemetery in Hempfield with a special memorial ceremony.

The ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. at the grave of Col. Richard Coulter. “Grave site interpreters” will present information at the graves of other Civil War veterans.

The historical societies chose Coulter as the subject of the first memorial ceremony for his contributions in the Civil War as well as his prominence in the Greensburg area afterward.

“Our program committee came up with the idea that during the Civil War 150 commemoration, we should go to the various cemeteries throughout the county and do some sort of ceremony,” said Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society executive director. “We thought Coulter was our most famous Civil War veteran, and so we thought we'd start at St. Clair.”

Coulter fought in the Mexican-American War and practiced law in Greensburg before the outbreak of the Civil War. He raised a company of local soldiers, which later became Company I of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, serving as lieutenant colonel and later colonel when the regiment was reorganized.

Coulter was wounded at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania and was brevetted brigadier general and later major general. He participated in the surrender ceremonies at Appomattox Court House to end the war before returning to Greensburg, where he embarked on an impressive business career, investing in coal mines, transportation and finance, as well as serving as the president of the First National Bank of Greensburg.

“We're centering on (Coulter), but I selected other ones, about 16 or 18 other ones, some of which are ‘Joe Nobody,' but yet they gave their life or were wounded or killed in certain battles,” said Glenn Smeltzer of the historical society. “Others are more prominent, captains and lieutenant colonels and so on. We tried to pick ones that are in this immediate area so people won't have to walk so far, but yet ones that have a wide spectrum of backgrounds of participation.”

Smeltzer used a Memorial Day program from 1946, a database of tombstone photographs, St. Clair Cemetery records and Samuel P. Bates' “History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers” to locate the grave sites of Civil War veterans.

“There are a few black soldiers in here, there's one Confederate soldier, a lot of soldiers who became very prominent after the war,” Smeltzer said.

Some veterans, such as Coulter, who found financial success after the war have large, elaborate grave markers. But many of the soldiers Smeltzer found were buried with simple markers or none at all.

“There's about 30 veterans and they were apparently not so fortunate as far as finances were concerned,” he said. “They're all buried there (in the old veterans' section of St. Clair Cemetery). Some of them have no marker; others have just a small plaque buried, actually, in the ground.”

Hays said she intends to continue to hold Civil War memorial ceremonies at more county cemeteries in collaboration with local historical societies.

“We'll keep adding to our knowledge base,” Hays said. “Each cemetery that we visit is now going to have a list of as much as we could find out, and most of them don't have that. Some might, but most don't. We want to get around the county. We don't want to just stick close to Greensburg. We want to get out there to the far reaches.”

Reservations for Sunday's ceremony are encouraged. Call Anita Zanke at the Westmoreland County Historical Society at 724-532-1935, ext. 210.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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