After death, many names become lost to the passage of time; however, one historian is making sure the service of every veteran from the region lives on.
Allen Jackson, a retired Air Force veteran and historian with several veterans groups around the area, has been working since 2008 to find unmarked and undermarked veterans’ graves and document their lives and service.
His most recent find was on Monday at the Oak Hill Cemetery.
James Watson, who died in 1932 at the age of 78, was buried in an unmarked plot alongside his family in Oak Hill. Jackson came across his family’s burial plot card during his research, and decided to look into Watson, as his age at the time of his death would put him at the right age to have served during the Civil War.
“So I ran back the records and found him where he served as a Confederate with Company E of the 30th Battalion Virginia Infantry,” said Jackson.
Watson had no headstone or marker to indicate where he was buried. This, Jackson said, is where the hard part of researching begins.
Old plot records for Oak Hill are kept at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University. From the plot card, Jackson knew there were several Watsons buried in the plot of land. Luckily, one of them had a headstone. After locating the headstone, the real magic happens.
Jackson practices what is known as grave dowsing.
He takes two dowsing rods and walks across a plot in a cemetery. Jackson said when he is over a grave, the dowsing rods will cross. Jackson said he can also determine the gender of the person buried in the grave, as the rod will turn right if the person was a female, and will turn left if the person was a male.
With the plot records and the dowsing rods, Jackson is typically able to determine who is buried in the unmarked grave.
“At first I thought, well, they’re crazy,” said Tim McKinney, the owner of Oak Hill Cemetery. “But after I watched them and seen what they were doing, they made a believer out of me.”
Watson is only the most recent veteran that Jackson has rediscovered. Overall, he has found 238 military veterans whose service was not noted on their headstones, one civilian casualty of World War II and three veterans whose graves were completely unmarked in Oak Hill alone.
Jackson takes his research beyond Oak Hill, though: “Our Washington County lads are all over the world,” he said.
Jackson said he has visited most of the gravesites in the U.S. of Washington County residents who were killed during their service. One of these was a Washington County serviceman who was killed in WWI and buried in Oneida County, New York, by his wife. She had remarried and not disclosed the location of his burial to his family.
Jackson, after locating the unmarked grave, ordered a headstone for the serviceman and held a graveside service with help from his Disabled American Veterans and American Legion groups. Jackson said the American Legion from Oriskany Falls, New York, also helped organize the service.
“They’re like, ‘OK, what relationship are you to this guy?’ and we’re like ‘None at all,’” said Jackson. “They said, ‘Y’all drove all the way up here to do all this for someone you didn’t even know?’ and we said, ‘Well, he’s a brother.’”
There are roughly 434 unmarked graves just at Oak Hill alone, not to mention unmarked and undermarked graves in other cemeteries across the region, so Jackson continues to work to find veterans’ graves and make sure the history of their service stays alive.