LAWNSIDE, N.J. – Dolly Marshall spent nearly a decade searching for clues about her family. That search – poring through old photographs, municipal records and ancestry reports – eventually led her to the gravesite of her great-great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran who was buried at Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside, N.J., just 10 minutes away from her Camden home.
“I knew my ancestors were more than just slaves and that, if I remained steadfast, I would find them,” Marshall said.
One of several sites in the historically African American Camden County community, Mount Peace, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But what Marshall found on her visit was a far cry from the honor. Years of neglect have taken a toll on the grounds. Many graves have sunken into the earth, headstones toppled, overgrown by wild weeds. The cemetery is littered with trash and leaves.
Due to segregation practices during the Civil War, African American soldiers who bravely fought with the Union Army were not usually laid to rest alongside many of their fellow soldiers in the cemeteries that were created after the battle. Rather, community members often buried African American veterans in unclaimed lands, along highways, many of which have long since been forgotten.
But a group of volunteers in New Jersey is trying to revitalize this one cemetery that for decades has suffered from neglect.
Marshall’s great-great grandfather, William Waters Hegamin, a seaman from Philadelphia, died in 1911 and, like so many African American soldiers from the region, Mount Peace had become his final resting place after being denied access to one of the 116 U.S. Civil War graveyards.
“Seeing his grave in this condition lit a fire,” Marshall said. “I knew immediately, sadness wasn’t going to do anything.”
Energized by her discovery, Marshall wanted to help. She reached out to Yolanda Romero, whose father had compiled a list of Civil War Veterans buried at Mount Peace.
For nearly two decades, Romero and a small group of volunteers have tried to maintain the integrity of the cemetery, which covers more than 11 acres along the adjacent highway and strip mall.
“The last two years have been the hardest. We just don’t have the manpower,” said Romero, a retired human resources manager, who serves on the board of the Mount Peace Cemetery Association.
Historians believe that the remains of as many as 125 Civil War veterans are buried at Mount Peace, along with veterans of the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War – but many of their graves have not been located. Burial records and plot maps were lost when a fire destroyed a caretaker’s house on the property, making it hard to confirm exact numbers, Romero said.
“It’s a lot of work. There are a lot of tombstones back in the woods that we can’t see, but now that we have this young lady to help organize [Marshall], maybe we can attract some more folks to help,” said Romero.
A three-acre stretch near the back of the cemetery is covered with growth and inaccessible. Romero said years ago, a group of Boy Scout volunteers had discovered more tombstones and plots in the area.
“As with many African Americans cemeteries of this time, there were no perpetual care funds in place,” said Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society. “It was the tradition for families to picnic near the graves of their ancestors and maintain care.”
Shockley estimates that 3,000 people are interred at Mount Peace but acknowledges a firm number is unknown sine there are so many unmarked markers.
“Many families marked their loved one's burial spot with seashells or spiky yucca plants,” said Shockley.
The Mount Peace association has $100,000 in its maintenance and preservation fund. But under state law, caretakers are only allowed to spend the interest, which has dropped to about $16 a year, Romero said. Unable to accept new burials, the board relies on donations and community organized cleanups.
“We need fencing but that could be a couple hundred thousand dollars and we haven’t finished clearing it,” Romero said, “I just hope to see is it finished in my lifetime.”
The Mount Peace board hopes to restore the cemetery and identify the remaining gravesites so tourist can learn more about the significance of the site.
“This is hallowed ground,” Marshall said. “They [the veterans] have names and faces, their lives are important.”