Thoughts for Memorial Day

The sky cleared and the sun’s heat prevailed for Memorial Day this year, but my friend and I would have walked down to the Masonic cemetery in any weather short of a downpour. Neither of us has family members interred there but we enjoy finding the graves of notable pioneers and recalling their stories and family connections. We wandered the rows and searched out intriguing monuments and discovered ones we haven’t noticed on other excursions. We are unabashed history nerds.

The cemetery was organized in the 1850s to provide a dedicated place for burials for the new communities forming by Tumwater Falls and further down the point of land jutting into Budd Inlet named Olympia for its spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. American settlement was just getting under way in this area, but with life there is death and the newly formed fraternal organization of Masons stepped up to provide final resting places for the pioneers as was needed. The first burial was for James Yantis in 1852 even before the cemetery grounds had been designated; perhaps his passing galvanized the community. Brother Mason Smith Hayes donated several acres of his land and other early settlers, Clanrick Crosby, Ira Ward, and Nelson and Anna Barnes, matched his generosity with more grants of land nearby. In time, a Jewish cemetery was organized and consecrated grounds set aside for Catholics.

This visit, I was especially set on finding gravestones honoring Civil War veterans. There must have been a sizable number of veterans looking for a fresh start after the ravages of the war in the eastern half of the country, as we found several rows of specially marked headstones indicating service in that terrible conflict. Many of them cluster around a rather plain monument dwarfed by two huge trees but visible by virtue of a flag floating over the site. It is simply inscribed, “Erected in Memory of the Union Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War, 1861—1865.” We paused to contemplate their possible life stories and the arc of history that brought them to Olympia and to wonder how many of them carried war wounds that contributed to their eventual deaths in the new country.

I thought of Margaret’s father who was wounded several times but somehow still managed an active life until death finally took him in 1899. His grave was not located in the area for old soldiers but in a different section entirely. Although brevetted as a major general for his courage and remarkable service, Thomas Irving McKenny was buried in the family plot with no mention of his service during either the Mexican War or the Civil War. He enlisted to fight for the Union as soon as possible from where he was living in Keokuk, Iowa, and was quickly thrust into the thick of the conflict in nearby Missouri where the Union Army struggled with Confederate troops as well as guerilla forces that terrorized the countryside. Thomas’ most famous military feat, however, was being sent in disguise across-country alone to infiltrate the campsite of General John Fremont and, under secret orders from President Lincoln himself, relieve the wayward general of his command. It’s a complicated but dramatic story, often recalled by the family and emblematic of the kind of person Thomas was.

The rather modest gravestone of Thomas Irving McKenny, with his wife Cynthia Adelaide who was buried next to him decades later. His date of death is incorrectly remembered; it was 1899.

I have often pondered what it meant to Margaret to have such a dashing and heroic father. His funeral procession to the cemetery from their family home in the heart of the town was ceremoniously and with impressive pomp conducted by the members of the Grand Army of the Republic of which he had been the local head, joined by many town people, a walk of several miles. His character and accomplishments were generously praised in the high-toned language of the day for all to hear and acknowledge as a loss to the community and the family.

Margaret was an impressionable fourteen when he passed away. Some of that stature surely rubbed off on her; she was not at all averse to being lauded as the General’s daughter even many years later in her life. The mantle of command it conferred only added to her own authority when she spoke up for various conservation causes. Her own grave is not part of the McKenny family plot; her ashes were scattered, most likely in a place known only to close friends but somewhere she cherished and worked to save.

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