COMER, Ga. -- Two years after Eugene Cruickshank acquired some land northeast of Athens, he decided to clear the thick growth of brush and trees behind his new home. He was unprepared for what he found.
On the top of a ridge behind a pond, he uncovered a small cemetery.
“The fence was down, the stones were broken in half and toppled over so we didn’t see any of this,” he said, “When I bought this place nobody said anything about a cemetery.”
The cemetery contained the bodies of Willis D. Strickland, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1857-60 and opposed Georgia seceding from the Union; his wife, Harlow Gholston Strickland; and their son, Wilson Bonaparte Strickland, a 19-year-old Confederate soldier who died of a bullet wound.
Cruickshank, a native of Vermont, and his wife, Claudette, who hails from Massachusetts, became the unexpected caretakers for this small forgotten cemetery with its Confederate warrior.
First, he put the cemetery back together. He consulted a cemetery worker in Athens and learned how to repair the old tombstones, which he put back in place. Then he fixed the old iron fence.
“Some of this, I thought we’d never get back together,” he said recently at the graveyard, where some steel posts were used to brace the weakened iron posts.
“The gate is an original. It’s a work of art,” he said.
Then, he began researching who lay in these graves, which included a small plot with only a stone to mark an unknown child. Richard Gholston, the brother of Harlow Strickand, came to live at the 655-acre plantation when his sister’s husband died in May 1862 at the age of 52, and is also laid to rest there.
With the help of a descendant who lives in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., he acquired photographs of the Strickland family and more information about their lives.
The Stricklands lost both sons in the Civil War. Milton Strickland, who served under Gen. Robert E. Lee, was killed in 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia and is believed buried in a mass grave.
Wilson Bonaparte Strickland was serving under Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg in the Tullahoma campaign of 1863 in Tennessee, when his company was confronted at Beech Grove by a mounted infantry headed by a Col. Walker, who armed his men with repeating rifles, Cruickshank said. The teenaged soldier was shot in the head.
“The story is one of the young men that was slightly wounded cut across country and came back to Comer and told Harlow that her son had been wounded and sent to Chattanooga. Harlow got a wagon and went to the railroad and went to Chattanooga and he was dead when she got there. He had lived for 11 days,” he said.
“To take that train all the way to Chattanooga and bring this kid back, now that’s dedication,” said Cruickshank, a retired U.S. Marine major who served in Korea and Vietnam during his 29 years in service.
“This boy made it,” he said. “He’s back on home ground.”
The old soldier reached over and his hand grasped one of the iron posts.
“On Confederate Memorial Day, a Rebel flag flies here,” he said.