Pioneer Heroes of Corpus Christi Are Buried in Old Military Cemetery

Burial Ground Was Surveyed in Early Days

World War Hero of City to be Buried in National Cemetery

Gregg Is Honored

Corpus Christi Youth Died After His Ship Was

Torpedoed

 

By Edna May Tubbs and Vivian Louis Johnson

 

Next Tuesday, Ernest H. Gregg, the first Texans to die in line of duty in the World War, will sleep with the nation’s honored dead in Arlington National cemetery.  Young Gregg was the son of State Labor Commissioner and Mrs. Robert H. Gregg, now of Austin, who arranged for the removal of his body to America after returning from a recent visit to their son’s grave in a little village cemetery on the northwest Irish coast.  Ernest H. Gregg enlisted in the navy in Corpus Christi early in 1917.  He died of exposure in a lifeboat off the Irish coast, when his ship, the U. S, S, Rochester, was torpedoed by a German submarine in November of the same year. The Corpus Christi American Legion poet, named in his honor, a year ago, marked this distant grave with a bronze tablet, which will be brought back with his body.

If it were not for the unquestionable distinction of having this Texas sailor buried among the heroes of the nation in Arlington, Corpus Christi might have wished Ernest Gregg’s last resting place to be among her honored dead in the Old Military cemetery.

This Old Military Cemetery stands on a point of the bluff of the two bays, Nueces bay and the Bay of Corpus Christi, only a few short blocks where Ernest H. Gregg enlisted for his sea duty.  The cemetery was surveyed by engineers of General Zachary Taylor’s army in 1845, when they were encamped at Kinney’s Ranch on the present site of the city of Corpus Christi.  In it are buried soldiers of five different wars, the Civil war – soldiers of both the Union and the Confederate armies – the Spanish-American war, and also many pioneers of Southwest Texas.

No lots were ever sold in this cemetery, which served as the only burying ground for almost half a century.  Small fenced enclosures, some of which still stand today, were used by those who wished to protect their family plots.  The place was said to have resembled a regular “potter’s field,” and every one who died was buried there, regardless of race, color, or creed.  Many former slaves lie not far from their “ol’ Marster’s” graves.

In the early nineteenth hundreds, a cemetery association was organized, with Mrs. Mary A. Sutherland, Mrs. G. R. Scott and Mrs. Jessie Clark as some of its first officers, and E. T. Merriman as its press representative and corresponding secretary.  The old cemetery’s name was changed to Bay View, and a short time later the New Bay View cemetery was purchased southwest of the city.  The association was instrumental in having a neat white picket fence, which stands in fairly good condition today, put around the old cemetery, in having water piped, and various other improvements, the rule allowing only the burial of immediate relatives of those persons already buried there was formulated. 

After the cemetery association became inactive, the city council on the urging of E. T. Merriman, took over the support of the cemetery.  They are now providing for competent caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Clark, who seem equally interested in the history of the place.  Merriman remains, as he has been for many years, the supervisor of all things concerning their spot so dear to his heart.

There is little doubt that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of unmarked graves there today.  Many bodies have been moved to other cemeteries.  Through the efforts of E. J. Killmer and of the G. A. R., the graves of the Unions veterans have been marked.  In August, 1906, the Daughters of the Confederacy erected an imposing granite stone bearing this inscription: “To the memory of the Confederate dead who lie in this and adjacent cemeteries.”

The Texas Ranger service is represented in the cemetery by the stone carrying the dates 1818-1888 and the name of Captain H. W. Berry, who was in command of the company of rangers stationed at Kinney’s ranch at the time that Taylor’s army was encamped there.   Reports have it that there was sharp rivalry between the Ranger captain and Lieutenant U. S. Grant of Zachary Taylor’s army for the favor of practically the only American girl in the community.  The army and, necessarily, Lieut. Grant moved into Mexico, and Captain Berry won the lady.  The valiant captain was elected the first sheriff of Nueces county upon its organization, when Texas joined the Union.  The district over which it was his duty to keep peace at that time extended from the Nueces to the Rio Grande, and it is said that there were few less peaceable territories in the Union.

One of the veterans of Taylor’s army who rests there on the bluff is William L. Rogers, a native of Alabama, who, with his party, was the Arroyo Colorado while conducting a supply train from Corpus Christi to Matamoros.  The Mexicans bound their captives, cut their throats, and threw the bodies in the Arroyo.  Rogers was the only member of the party who did not die, and he, after wandering in the brush for days, was cared for by a kindly Mexican family.  He was later discovered by the bandits, and only the pleading of his little nurse, Julia, saved his life, a second time.  He later returned and married this pretty rescuer.  After coming back to Corpus Christi, he accumulated several pieces of property – of considerable importance among which were the famous old St. James hotel and the Palo Alto ranch.  He died in December, 1877.

Near the center of the cemetery stands the low marble shaft erected to the memory of Captain Mich’l E. Van Buren, of the Maryland Mounted Rifles, who was wounded in an Indian fight near the mouth of the Nueces in 1851, dying later at the home of Mrs. Dolan.  This tone bears two scars as silent witnesses of the bombardment of the city of Corpus Christi by federal gunboats during the Civil war.  The stone beside its was badly shattered by grape shell, and the inscription is unintelligible.  Recently a new stone was placed near the foot of Captain Van Buren’s grave, but the old one still remains as the genuine marker of the spot where this gallant soldier lies.

A tall shaft bearing the seal of the Republic of Texas is that of William Gamble, who died in 1887, “A soldier of the Republic of Texas, born in Manor Cunningham, County of Donegal, Ireland, August 10, 1808.

Under the thick shade of a group of cedars are the graves of the Merriman family and of Dr. Eli T. Merriman, born under the shadow of the Charter Oak at Bristol, Connecticut, a Yankee graduate, a surgeon in the Army of the Republic of Texas and, later, the Army of the Southern Confederacy, as well as a state representative.  Dr. Merriman fell in line of duty in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

The grave of John M. Cayge, who was born in Tennessee on April 12, 1819, and who died on October 5, 1887, a Texas veteran and a Mason, has not been visited in more than ten years.

Among the graves of the soldiers of the Union army are those of the Nolan brothers, Mathew and Thomas, of Company C., Second U. S. Dragoons; Joseph Williamson, Company C, Fifth U. S. Cavalry; G. E. Heisselholdt, Company 14 Tenth U. S. Infantry; and, under a gaily flowering lantana in  the von Blucher lot, that of James Downing, Company 1, Thirty-sixth C. T.

A victim of the Mexican raid of Good Friday, May 16, 1875, was George W. Swank, who had been in the company with George Dunn, but who was alone at the time of the attack. 

Perhaps one of the most widely known persons buried in the cemetery was Judge B. F. Neal, a Virginian by birth, the first mayor of Corpus Christi, district judge, editor of the Nueces Valley, a Confederate veteran, the defender of Corpus Christi during the Civil was; a man who was always interested in the welfare of the community and especially in the early schools.

Among the later graves is that of Hugh R. Sutherland, a Scotchman, born in Toronto, Canada, who died July 4, 1906, at the age of 84.  Sutherland was captain of the Ninth regiment of Alabama Volunteers and was decorated for conspicuous bravery at the ballet of Reams Station.  He was seriously wounded at Salem Church and again while defending the crater after the mine explosion at Petersburg.  Nearby is that of his wife, Mrs. Mary A. Sutherland, a southerner by birth, and historian of the Corpus Christi Chapter of the U. D. C. as well as the author of  “The Story of Corpus Christi,” who died only this last year.

Distinguished peace time citizens are represented by the graves of seven mayors of the city of Corpus Christi, the first postmaster, the first fire chief, Felix Noessel, and even that of the first barber, a colored gentleman named Ben Hardaway.

Today the Old Military cemetery presents an appearance in keeping with its historical associations.  Grass and native trees, mesquite and wild persimmon, vines and blooming shrubs lend an air of peace to the hallowed ground, while the Stars and Stripes marking each veteran’s grave flutter in the cool Gulf breeze.

Source:  Corpus Christi Caller-Times, July, 1931.








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