Remembering the Dead

An old downtown Tucson cemetery is at the center of an archaeological project

Originated in 1868, Memorial Day--which at first was called Decoration Day--could have immediately included the remembrance of service men buried in downtown Tucson. However, that didn't happen.

The Arizona Weekly Citizen explained the day's meaning in 1881: "To decorate with flowers the graves of soldiers, who fell in battle or died of disease in the late (Civil) War, or who have since died.

"It is to be regretted," continued the Citizen, "that this day is not observed in Tucson. The dust of many a soldier who wore the blue or gray is deposited in the cemetery, almost or quite forgotten by all save the faithful hearts in some distant home."

Tucson didn't mark the occasion until 1885.

The cemetery the Citizen referred to was a military burial ground located downtown near the northeast corner of what is now Stone Avenue and Alameda Street. Today, the offices of the nonprofit organization Chicanos por la Causa occupy much of the site.

"It was a 150-foot square," Marlesa Gray says of the military cemetery, "and was a portion of a much larger (civilian) cemetery. There was an adobe wall around it, and the graves were laid out in rows."

Employed by Statistical Research Inc., Gray is project manager for the archeological research work the firm recently conducted on both cemeteries. This effort was undertaken in anticipation of the construction of a joint city/county courts building on most of the property.

The establishment of Tucson's military cemetery followed the 1862 Civil War skirmish at Picacho Peak, which left three Union soldiers dead. Confederate troops quickly abandoned Tucson after that, and the California Column of Union soldiers then came to town.

"They camped south of Congress Street west of Main Avenue," points out Arnold Franks, an amateur historian, of these Union soldiers.

An Air Force veteran himself, Franks adds that the Column's headquarters were located inside a confiscated home located basically where the old Pima County courthouse is today. Thus, the military cemetery would have been only a few blocks away.

Franks says the first two soldiers--a sergeant and private--were laid to rest in the cemetery in July 1862. Three months later, two others joined them, George Hand remembers in his diary. Hand was a Union soldier who would become a famous Tucson bartender. His diaries offer unique glimpses into local life during the middle of the 19th century.

Hand writes that after an extended illness, Pvt. Jacob Smith died of scurvy on Oct. 4 and was buried the next day in the military cemetery. But this vitamin-deficiency disease wasn't the only cause of death among the troops serving in Tucson; Hand reported that Indians fatally shot Pvt. George McFarland later in the month.

Over time, more soldiers, including two of those killed at Picacho Peak, were interned in Tucson's military cemetery.

After the Civil War, Camp Lowell was established along Sixth Avenue in downtown Tucson. Franks estimates that eventually, there were about 75 soldiers buried in the military cemetery, along with three Indian scouts and some civilians.

One of the later burials was Captain R.M. Crandall, who died in 1876. Not only was he a soldier, Franks says, but he was also a successful Tucson businessman.

Even though the community failed to commemorate these deceased veterans on Memorial Day in 1881, it was using the military cemetery for other purposes at that time.

"It is nearly as sad as death," a letter writer told the Arizona Weekly Star, "to think we live among human beings who could be so degraded as to make targets of tombstones (in the military cemetery)."

That same year, the military graveyard was closed to burials, and the land was turned over to the Tucson school district. But that didn't improve the deplorable physical situation of the cemetery, even after the City Council ordered the wall around the cemetery removed in 1882.

The following year, the Weekly Citizen remarked that many of the grave markers in the military cemetery were so weather-worn as to be unreadable.

The newspaper lamented "that (those buried in the cemetery) too should be treated as dead dogs, and every mark of their resting place obliterated and trodden under foot, should reach further than the corporation limits of Tucson, and touch a nation's pride, for they of all men are deserving of a better remembrance."

That sentiment must have been heard, since in 1884, most of the remains were removed to Fort Lowell, east of town.

But not all of them were transferred. Gray says that they found four intact burials while doing their work, though archaeologists don't know if the bodies were soldiers or civilians. She indicates analysis will be conducted on these remains, and they then will be buried at Fort Huachuca.

In 1889, the Arizona Daily Star wrote about the military cemetery and an adjacent former civilian burial ground: "(It) is the general dump ground and receptacle for the offals of the city. A person walking through it finds everything in it from a dead rat to a dead horse."

By the following year, that despicable condition was finally being addressed. The former military land was sold by the school district and probably graded after being subdivided into six residential-size lots. For more information about Tucson's military cemetery and the archeology project, go to In early October 2007, contractors for Tucson Water worked on a water main that passed through a portion of the cemetery that was especially dense with graves.

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