When veterans buried in Watertown were honored during Memorial Day week 2022, one of the graves in Mount Auburn Catholic Cemetery had a gleaming white headstone, but the veteran buried there died over 150 years old.
The grave belongs to James Fleming, who served in the Civil War and died in 1869. He was buried in the cemetery, which is at the end of Cottage Street in East Watertown, but there was no marker.
Local historian Bill McEvoy set out to obtain a suitable marker for Fleming, and it was installed just before Memorial Day.
The first interment at Mount Auburn Catholic Cemetery was on April 11, 1854, McEvoy said. There are 24,000 people buried in less than seven acres, he said, “which is compact.”
Most graves in the cemetery were designed for four burials, but it was not uncommon to find five to eight people in a lot, McEvoy found. There were no concrete burial liners and the ground is sand under a few centimeters of topsoil.
Many infants and young children were buried there. According to McEvoy’s study of the 15,562 burials between 1854 and 1881, 49% died before the age of 6, 45% died before the age of 4, and 24% died before the age of a year.
“I wanted to learn more about these people, including their struggles,” McEvoy said.
He grew up in Belmont on Belmont Street and became interested in local history when he retired as a Massachusetts District Court magistrate in 2009. He also volunteered as a magistrate with of courts two days a week from 2009 to 2019, mainly in the District Court. in Deham.
“I went to Mount Auburn Cemetery to see if they were taking volunteers,” McEvoy said. “I did a long-term project on the emerging middle class. I became more interested in people who have single graves. I did a project on Civil War noncombatants. There were nine nurses and 15 clergy.
McEvoy is a Vietnam-era veteran and served in the military as a military police sergeant in the northern part of Incheon, South Korea, from 1969 to 1970. The History Virus l was bitten after taking a history course at Boston College taught by Thomas O’Connor, known as “Boston’s Dean of Historians.”
Searching for veterans at Mount Auburn Cemetery, he found about 1,000 people who served in the Civil War, including those who died during the war and those who died later.
Then he turned to people buried in the nearby Mount Auburn Catholic Cemetery, which is run by the Archdiocese of Boston. He found that 150 people were from the Civil War, along with five from World War I, three from World War II, and two from other eras.
“I went looking for people, searching among men who were eligible for service based on their age,” McEvoy said. “Some headstones indicated they were Civil War people, but not many. I kept digging.
In Fleming’s case, he looked on ancestry.com and researched anyone who served in the Civil War and had a headstone sent to Watertown.
Fleming joined the Massachusetts 28th Regiment in Charlestown in 1861, when he was about 20 years old. He entered as a sergeant and emerged as a lieutenant colonel.
“He was wounded four times during the regiment’s many campaigns,” McEvoy said in one of his YouTube videos of Mt. Auburn Catholic Cemetery.
To learn more about Fleming, McEvoy got in touch with Sandy Barnard of Medford, who had researched Massachusetts 28 and written several books. Barnard found documents in the National Archives indicating that Fleming suffered from tuberculosis, and in October 1868 his doctor recommended that he leave Boston.
Fleming traveled to California, but in April 1869 he boarded a steamer to return to Boston.
“When he stopped in New York on May 1, 1869, Fleming was gravely ill,” McEvoy said in his video. “When they got him off the boat and when they got to the hospital in New York, he was barely alive. He died at 11 a.m. on May 2.
He did more research and he found that “his cause of death was noted as the effects of exposure injuries during American service,” McEvoy said in the video.
Although he was originally from Charlestown, Fleming was buried in Mt. Auburn Catholic Cemetery in Watertown.
“The way it was then, a Catholic cemetery was opening up and starting to take new burials,” McEvoy said. “Most of the time the death was instantaneous. You see land purchased and the next day a funeral.
Another nearby Catholic cemetery that opened before the one in Watertown was North Cambridge Catholic Cemetery on Rindge Avenue in Cambridge, McEvoy said.
Fleming’s mother was from Charlestown and his father from Brighton. Both were buried there, along with Fleming and two of his siblings. While he knew Fleming was buried in Watertown Cemetery, McEvoy was unable to find his headstone on ancestry.com.
“I saw they had an order for a marker in 1879, but there was no indication that it was ever delivered there, which is rare,” McEvoy said.
He then set out to obtain a tombstone from Fleming. McEvoy applied for a veterans memorial, and it was successful.
“I checked it back and forth – it’s the trooper,” McEvoy said. “He is buried with his mother and father and a few siblings.”
The cemetery had to sign the application, which they did, and it was sent to the Veterans Administration (VA). McEvoy said it was possible to get a flat or vertical stone, like those in national cemeteries.
“For him, I asked for an amount,” McEvoy said.
The Association of Catholic Cemeteries quickly approved and expedited the request. The process took just seven weeks, from asking staff at Calvary Cemetery to place the marker in time for Memorial Day. Calvary Cemetery in Waltham is the maintenance site for Mount Auburn Catholic Cemetery.
The headstone now sits where Fleming and his family were buried. The grave received the same treatment as other veterans’ graves during Memorial Day ceremonies this year.
“I worked with (Watertown Veterans Services Officer) Patrick George. He got standard bearers and flags for all the graves,” McEvoy said.