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Honoring heroes at Santa Fe National Cemetery

Robert NottMay 27, 2019

The wind blew hard and fast, as if it were trying to say something about how the past meets the present.

It blustered over a small hill in the Santa Fe National Cemetery that bears the graves of three Buffalo Soldiers — Thomas Smith, Levi Morris and David Ford — who served and died at Fort Craig in the late 1800s.

Nearby stands a monument that pays tribute to some 60 other people who lived or served at Fort Craig, the 19th-century Socorro County outpost that played a role in the Civil War and and protection of the Southwest.

The headstones speak to a part of history — and sacrifice — that many people are not aware of, said Rene Matison, a member of the New Mexico Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, which gathers at the cemetery every year to commemorate the losses suffered more than a century ago in a harsh, oft-forgotten swatch of desert.

The Buffalo Soldiers — and soldiers whose sacrifices have been relegated to history — also are part of Memorial Day. For those who are determined to remember, the past seems tangible at this cemetery.

“To put faces and history behind their names is to find out more about how African Americans have contributed to this country,” Matison said. “Very few people are aware of the impact that the Buffalo Soldiers had in settling the Southwest.”

The Buffalo Soldiers were African American cavalrymen who served on the American frontier following the end of the Civil War, enduring racial prejudice while proving their valor in combat.

The remains of Smith, Morris and Ford were exhumed at the historic Fort Craig cemetery in 2007 during an investigation into a major looting operation at the long-abandoned site. Forensic experts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., were able to identify the three soldiers.

The identities of the rest of the Fort Craig contingent remain a mystery, though given the passage of time since they were living, breathing characters in the settling of the West, that’s no surprise. Other graves within the cemetery have headstones that tell little or nothing about their occupants: Unknown soldiers. Navajo children with no names. Unidentified civilians who served on military posts.

And yet, all of the 41,000 graves in the cemetery have a story to tell — especially this weekend, as Americans gather on Memorial Day to pay homage to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

In many sections of the cemetery, visitors likely will stop at gravesites of departed loved ones to place flowers and trade stories.

But it’s important to remember those interred in the less-traveled historic sections of the cemetery too, said cemetery director Jared Howard, who added the worst thing that can happen to a soldier’s memory is being forgotten.

Unlike other national cemeteries designed for military veterans and their spouses, Santa Fe’s garden of stone benefits from the lengthy and varied history surrounding the region.

“I’ve been to a lot of different national cemeteries, each with its own niche,” Howard said. “Maybe it’s focused on the Civil War or one of the world wars. But this cemetery is divergent — you’ve got graves related to the American frontier, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, World War II, the Bataan Death March and the Navajo Code Talkers.”

There also is a section of the cemetery where 30-plus Confederate soldiers, all casualties of the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in March 1862, are buried.

The Confederates’ headstones have pointed tops, according to an old saying, so that neither the devil nor any Yankee would ever be able to sit on them. But a visitor can go beyond that myth and research the battle through any number of print and online sources.

Not all of the research about monuments in the cemetery turns up aces. Take the story of Pvt. Dennis O’Leary, a turn-of-the-20th-century soldier who served in the 23rd Infantry and reportedly built his own burial monument out of sandstone, carving the date of his death into its facade before taking his own life. He left a note asking military officials to make sure he was buried under that monument in Santa Fe.

Could that tale be true? Military records simply say Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis at Fort Wingate near Gallup on April 1, 1901. Why would the military dedicate such a pedestal of honor for an otherwise forgotten soldier? Howard had no answers, but said it’s the one gravesite in the place that has the most “conflicted” stories swirling about it.

That mystery serves as a draw to visitors all the same.

Other graves point to gunplay and death. Territorial New Mexico Gov. Charles Bent, killed in the Taos Revolt of 1847, is buried in the cemetery.

There’s a tall gravestone, almost a monument, for Lawrence Murphy, cattleman, businessman and participant in the state’s Lincoln County War, which is perhaps best-known for the contribution Billy the Kid made to it with his guns. Murphy didn’t die a violent death in that conflict. Rather, he succumbed to cancer in Santa Fe in the late 1870s.

Other people buried in the cemetery may remain obscure. New Mexico State Deputy Historian Rob Martinez said he is intrigued by the fact that veteran and former Gov. George Curry is interred there — not because of his political achievements, which Martinez said were “prestigious,” but because Curry was appointed New Mexico’s first state historian in the mid-1940s.

Others are remembered more easily. Buried at the cemetery is Daniel Fernandez of Los Lunas, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and died while shielding his military comrades from a grenade. Fernandez posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 1967, about 14 months after his death.

In a less-than-six-degrees form of connection, Martinez said his father, Robert Martinez, was a musician who wrote a corrida about Fernandez, whose life, death and sacrifice bonded proud New Mexicans even as an unpopular war raged.

Nine other Medal of Honor recipients, ranging from the days of the Indian wars to Vietnam, also are buried in the cemetery.

“These are all people who made history,” Martinez said.

Of the tens of thousands of people who come to the cemetery each year, Howard estimates that 10 to 20 each week come in specifically to scope out its more historic graves.

The cemetery’s origins are also steeped in the history of the nation. After the Civil War, the federal government established the cemetery for the reinterment of Union soldiers who died during the conflict in New Mexico. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe (now known as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), which owned the property, donated the land to the United States in 1870. According to the cemetery’s website, the federal government decided to downgrade the status of the cemetery in 1876 before redesignating it as a national cemetery nine years later.

For Martinez, every soldier buried in the cemetery is notable because he or she served their country. The wide array of people interred there, he said, allows for “a reflection of our history based on certain people and events that have helped shape not just our national history but our state and local history.

“It reflects our country in their backgrounds, too — we are made up of many different kinds of people with different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the cemetery makes it clear that they all come together in life and death.”

If you go

The Santa Fe National Cemetery is located at 501 N. Guadalupe St. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except federal holidays — though it is open on Memorial Day.

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