Thursday, July 13, 2017

Grave matters: Meet the man who helps make a great site go

"I've been fascinated and immersed in learning history," says Russ Dodge, a senior administrator
for the Find A Grave web site.
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For Civil War researchers, there's plenty to like online. Digitized regimental histories, glass-plate images from the Library of Congress, fabulous war-time newspaper accounts from the New York Times, widow's pension records and much more are available in seconds at our fingertips.

Among my go-to online sources for information is Find A Grave, a contributor-based web site that documents, often with photographs, the final resting places of thousands associated with the Civil War. Digging into Find A Grave led to my published accounts about a 54-year-old Connecticut private who was killed at Antietam and a Confederate soldier who wrote a beautiful, haunting post-war letter to his sister. Using the site, I contacted their descendants, who generously shared letters, photographs and other information with me about those Civil War soldiers. (I am also a big fan of Find A Grave's searchable, aggregated information for cemeteries -- especially this one for the national cemetery at Antietam.)

Find A Grave was founded in the mid-'90s by Jim Tipton.
A Find A Grave member since 2008, I have been curious about the site's inner workings and who was behind it. So I contacted Find A Grave senior adminstrator Russ Dodge, who got involved with the site soon after its creation in the mid-'90s. A longtime history buff, Dodge figures he puts in 20 hours a week working on the web site and other history-related projects. (In his day job, the 48-year-old New Jersey native works for a chemical trucking firm.)

"I've been fascinated and immersed in learning history," Dodge told me, "with Civil War history being my favorite topic." Of course, he also enjoys visiting cemeteries, especially the historic Laurel Hill Cemetery -- an "underground museum," he calls it -- high on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

Dodge, who lives in Conshohocken, Pa., recently answered my questions about Find A Grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, what beverage he would raise at the grave of his favorite Civil War soldier and more.

For the uninitiated, tell us what Find a Grave is and how it came about.

Dodge: Find A Grave is a contributor-based gravesite documentation web site. That’s its main purpose, which has not changed since its inception. Over the years, it has evolved two secondary purposes – as a memorial site to those who have passed and as a genealogical resource.

Jim Tipton started it in the mid-1990s as a venue for his hobby, which was seeking out and photographing the final resting places of famous and infamous people. Once people like me starting finding it, he started accepting contributions from other grave photographers. It grew to a point where he expanded it to include anyone who has lived and died. He opened it up to direct contributions from anyone who cared to register and contribute to it in 2001, and the rest, as they say, is history. There are now over 162 million names on the site. (Here's the site's FAQ.)

Russ Dodge (far left) pursues his passion for history during a tour of Laurel Hill Cemetery
 in Philadelphia. Here, he is at the family plot for Union General George Meade.
How did you get involved with Find A Grave?

Dodge: I sent in a pack of photos in October 1996, which he accepted and put on his site. That started my now 20+ years' association with Find A Grave. For a while, he had a small group of “power users,” which he granted limited autonomy in contributing to the database. When he made the 2001 switch to allow anyone to contribute, it quickly grew to point where he couldn’t run it by himself anymore, so in April 2002, he asked me and another well-regarded contributor, A.J. Marik, to become site administrators. For a good portion of the 2000s, it was just us three. Together we formulated standards and policies that for the most part are still in place today, and have seemed to serve the site well so far.

What's your favorite Civil War-related story regarding Find A Grave?

Dodge's efforts led to a new marker for the grave of
71st Pennsylvania Sergeant Albert Gesner Bunn,
who was killed at Gettysburg.
(Photo: Russ Dodge)
Dodge: There are too many to count. I thoroughly enjoy coming across a grave, and finding out their Civil War service through research. I guess my favorite is when I discover a Civil War veteran’s unmarked grave, and that information I discover leads to that veteran finally getting a grave marker. In Laurel Hill Cemetery, I discovered the grave of Sergeant Albert Gesner Bunn of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry, who was killed manning an artillery piece near the copse of trees during Pickett’s Charge. He had lain unmarked for 148 years. After I put all his information on Find A Grave and created a memorial to him, the cemetery was able to get a marker for him, which was dedicated during a Memorial Day ceremony. I was glad to be a part of getting him the honors and recognition his sacrifice deserved.

PANORAMA: George Meade's gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
(Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)
Union General George Meade, who lived in Philadelphia after the Civil War, died there in 1872.
You give tours of the vast, historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. It's the final resting place of Union General George Meade and Confederate General John Pemberton of Vicksburg infamy, among many others with ties to the Civil War. What makes that place special to you?

Confederate General John Pemberton,
vanquished at Vicksburg in 1863,
is buried in historic Laurel Hill Cemetery
in Philadelphia.
Dodge: It’s truly an underground museum, just seething with history known and yet to be discovered. There are over 700 known Civil War veterans there, from buck privates to high-ranking generals – all of whom have a story under their stones. Name a theater of operations during the war, there is a veteran buried in the cemetery who served there. I feel like I'm walking in the footsteps of the history I love when I'm there.

As a cemetery expert, what advice do you have for amateurs?

Dodge: Be prepared. Have a camera handy, a notebook, water, and during the summer, sunscreen and bug spray. Learn to read a cemetery – they have patterns and “flow” that develop over the vast years that are only apparent after a long stretch of time. Doing so will help you find what you are looking for if it's something or someone specific. Be cautious and especially be respectful, and always remember someone’s loved one’s physical remains are under your feet. We are the custodians of their memory – always try to honor that.

I have found that Find A Grave is an excellent Civil War research tool. Give us three tips for using it for Civil War research.

Dodge: Get to know the three main web sites outside of Find A Grave that have an incredible amount of Civil War information at your fingertips –, and People are put off by them because they are all for-profit pay sites, but I've found that the ease of information access is worth the price for me (Full disclosure: bought Find A Grave three years ago, so now via Find A Grave, I am an employee of Ancestry.) Information found on the site can really help you either flesh out a biography of a Civil War veteran you would like to add to the Find A Grave database, or it can help you determine if a Find A Grave memorial with scant info on it is indeed a Cvil War veteran.

Understand that there can be many variants of a soldier’s or sailor’s name, due to the unregulated record keeping of the time period, the lack of universal literacy amongst the general populace, and the very common use of aliases during service. Often the soldier you are looking for can be found if you spell his name in a different way. Don’t give up right away if you at first can’t find the name in the database.

Use the “Virtual Cemetery” aspect of Find A Grave to gather memorials together for easy reference. I have a “virtual cemetery” for every New Jersey Civil War regiment, so if I stumble upon a New Jersey Civil War veteran memorial, I have a place to add them to where I can easily find if needed.

Russ Dodge would enjoy raising a craft porter
or stout to the memory of Philip Kearny,
who's buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
To honor Civil War soldiers, some people place a penny (Lincoln side up) or a small pile of rocks on a headstone. Do you do anything special?

Dodge: I do indeed. After photographing and noting a Civil War veteran grave, I briefly touch the marker (depending upon its condition) as my way of silent saying, “I was here visiting you, and I am remembering you.” I also give a thanks for their service.

Ever been creeped out walking through a cemetery?

Dodge: Only by human neglect and human indifference to the memory of those buried there. It still astounds me that some places and some cemeteries are treated as badly as they are by the local populace.

Finally, if you could raise a pint of your favorite beverage at the grave of a Civil War soldier, whom would you choose and why?

Dodge: It would probably be a good craft porter or stout, and it would be at the grave of General Phil Kearny in Arlington National Cemetery. I feel he was personally the bravest general to serve in the Union army, and had he not died at the Battle of Chantilly on Sept. 1, 1862, the war in the East might have gone much differently.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

1 comment:

  1. Many of you have heard about the recent dedication July 1st of my bust of Gen. T.F. Meagher at Green-Wood Cemetery. But many don't know the story behind it. Here it is....