In 2014, I had the opportunity to accompany my husband on a work trip to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina during the week before Memorial Day. The weather was great, the ocean was beautiful, and I had plenty of time to catch up on some projects. I had never been to South Carolina, and I figured it would be unlikely to have another opportunity to visit there any time in the near future, if ever. A week in a beautiful place with just my husband and lots of relaxation? Yes, please!
I had been asked to give a short talk about Memorial Day during our church services on the upcoming Sunday, so I spent a good deal of time gathering my thoughts and trying to determine how best to approach the topic of Memorial Day and honoring our fallen veterans.
Since I love family history, I thought it would be a great time to share a few family stories in my talk. I could honor some of my veteran ancestors, and hopefully get others excited about family history, too. One of the ancestors I selected to highlight was my 3rd great-grandfather, Samuel Madison, a Civil War veteran.
On Thursday of that week, while my husband relaxed a bit after his last full day of class, I continued to peruse several resources to piece together an outline of Samuel’s service.
Samuel Madison enlisted in Co. A of the 21st Michigan Volunteers in Jackson, Michigan, on September 10, 1864. He had a wife, Miretta, and two children, Frank and Alzina. The family stayed in Eaton, Michigan, following Samuel’s enlistment. Although I would love to know what enticed Samuel, who was about 39 years old at the time, to enlist three full years into the war, we can only speculate. Unfortunately, the records do not include that type of information.
Samuel’s service in the war was short. In November and December 1864, his unit participated in the March to the Sea in Georgia and also the Siege of Savannah. It is very likely that Samuel participated in these events to some degree, because we know from his records that he died from acute dysentery at 1 Div 14 A.C. hospital in Savannah, Georgia, on January 10, 1865. Like many others, he contracted the illness while in service. His Compiled Military Service Record may give more details on his activities prior to his death and could be a great source for future research.
Samuel was buried in Laurel Grove cemetery in Savannah, and later was re-interred at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina.
As I pieced together and analyzed the data and clues from Samuel’s military service, the location of his burial caught my attention. He was buried in Beaufort? South Carolina? We were in South Carolina that very day and would be flying home to Michigan the next day. Was the cemetery close enough that maybe we could visit?
Sure enough – Beaufort National Cemetery was about one hour from our hotel. It was only 5pm by this point so there was plenty of time to drive over there. When my husband heard about my discovery, he immediately said, “Well, let’s go!” And so we did. Within a few minutes we were out the door, GPS at the ready, and on our way.
It was a beautiful sunny evening. The cemetery, like all national cemeteries, was peaceful and reverent. We searched in the grave locator on site to double check the grave location: section 41, site 4740. My husband and I were both excited – it was an unexpected opportunity at the end of our week in Hilton Head. My husband loves everything military and I love everything family history so it was a perfect adventure for us. I was also very humbled – because I was still stunned at the sudden turn of events that led us to this discovery.
We found his stone and spent time reflecting on Samuel’s service and the sacrifice of all the people buried there. We soaked in the peace and beauty of the area; how the stones were arranged neatly in curved lines, each one representing a life lost, and how the sun sprinkled light through the trees and over the rows of white.
We noticed a small group of people, including some Boy Scouts, who were placing flags at the graves for Memorial Day. We asked if we could get a flag so we could place it at Samuel’s stone, and the Scouts very kindly obliged.
My husband placed Samuel’s flag carefully, honored to give this small act of service back to my 3rd great-grandfather who had given his life in service to his country. How long had it been since a family member had visited his grave? How long since someone made a point to say thank you for your service and sacrifice in person? Considering his family for the next several generations stayed in Michigan, I would guess it had been a very long time.
That experience and the sequence of events that led up to it have stayed with me. I know that we were led there. I could feel it. By chance, I had been asked to talk about Memorial Day. By chance, I selected Samuel Madison as a person to spotlight in my talk. By chance, when I pieced together the details of his service, I happened to be one hour away from his final resting place, where my husband and I could take the time and make the effort to pay our respects for my Civil War ancestor that paid the ultimate sacrifice. And by chance, we happened to visit the cemetery on a Thursday evening at the exact time that we could place the flag at his gravestone, in honor of his service, for Memorial Day.
If I had waited even one day to dig into that research on Samuel Madison, the opportunity would have been lost. And what a disappointment that would have been! Instead, my husband and I had what felt like a surreal experience as we were led exactly where we needed to go, exactly when we needed to be there.
And that, friend, is serendipity.