Shaffer: Graves of Confederate brothers dug up in west Raleigh

STAFF WRITERMarch 19, 2012 

  • On April 14, the Holleman brothers’ caskets will be carried from the N.C. Museum of History to their burial at Oakwood Cemetery. They will remain under honor guard until 1 p.m., when they will be taken by artillery caisson to the cemetery for a 2 p.m. service.

— They marched into the woods carrying shovels, axes, hatchets and a Sawzall – tools for digging a pair of Confederate brothers out of the red clay.

When they reached the spot, they brushed the leaves off a pair of cracked tombstones until they could see a soldier chiseled on one of them, and a stack of cannonballs.

They ran a metal detector over each slab, but before they turned the first spade of dirt, they stopped to pray.

“We know these young men have left their earthly shell,” said Donald Scott, head bowed. “We want to respect and honor these remains, even though we know their souls are with you. They were Tar Heels. We don’t want them lost.”

With the traffic buzzing past on Trinity Road Saturday, two dozen volunteers worked to pull Joseph and Joel Holleman from their graves – grown less peaceful after a century and a half.

Nothing specific threatens their rest, but Interstate 40 passes near enough to hear traffic, and, across the road, an advertisement for single-family homes describes this corner of west Raleigh as “the intersection of tradition and tomorrow.”

To the diggers in these woods, the Hollemans belong in Oakwood Cemetery, led there by honor guard, laid alongside men who fell at Gettysburg.

“My heart says this is the right thing,” said Scott, who represents both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the 26th N.C. re-enactment unit. “These boys have been here 150 years. Their blood is our blood.”

Joseph Holleman was a private with the 26th N.C. Regiment, just 22 when he died of pneumonia near Morehead City.

His brother Joel was older, 28, and nobody knows for sure how he died. He was a teacher, not a soldier, and a secretary with the Masons in Cary. But he had connections to the state Fairgrounds Hospital in Raleigh, and the federal government still lists him as a “Confederate collaborator.”

In 1862, they were buried on quiet farmland, side by side.

“My kids played here all the time,” said Marilyn Hicks Geisler, whose family owns the land. “We played hide and seek. We had a basketball hoop, and when the ball would come over here, the kids would look at each other like, ‘Who is going to get it?’ We knew it was a graveyard.”

Her daughter Anna, 27, recalls being fond of the brothers’ company.

“We grew up with them,” she said. “It’s going to be strange not having them around anymore.”

The diggers worked in shifts, three to a grave. They pried up the stones and carted them away in pieces, moving slowly and carefully.

One foot down, they hit thick roots, chopping them with axes and tearing them with a Sawzall.

Two feet down, the roots got thicker.

Three feet down, someone found a golf ball.

At the edges of the graves, a pair of pine caskets waited to collect the brothers’ remains.

“What we’ll likely find is discolored soil in the shape of a human torso,” Scott said. “You may find a row of buttons where his shell jacket would have been. Belt buckle as well.”

After hours of digging, six pieces of coffin appeared in Joseph’s grave, along with eight buttons in a row. He had a small antique bottle with him, possibly containing spices.

In Joel’s grave, the diggers found more buttons, another bottle, pieces of what appeared to be suspenders and a pair of cufflinks.

Nothing else.

They collected these remnants, exposed to daylight for the first time in 150 years, and loaded them in the pine boxes. Now neither kudzu nor concrete will cover Joseph and Joel Holleman.

They will rest as brothers, two more men in the long row of white markers.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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