In my studies, I have the amazing opportunity to learn about extraordinary efforts and projects carried out by other historians. Whether that project is writing a book, preserving a battlefield, or creating more awareness about our country’s past, I enjoy seeing their progress and rooting for them on the sidelines.
One such project has become incredibly special and meaningful to me, since it lines up well with my own views of why the people of the past should be remembered. The mission of Shrouded Veterans, founded and operated by Frank Jastrzembski, is to honor the services of soldiers whose gravestones are missing or damaged by replacing their headstones. Mr. Jastrzembski was kind enough to take time out of his busy holiday season to answer a few questions about Shrouded Veterans and his many ongoing preservation projects.
SB: Let’s start with you. Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in the Civil War.
FJ: My interest in the Civil War dates back to the fifth grade when I wrote a book report on President Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve been hooked ever since. After finishing graduate school, I began to write and publish articles on the war. My main areas of interest are Civil War generals and the darker side of the war — death, funerals, mental health, etc. I’m a regular contributor to the fantastic Emerging Civil War blog.
SB: Tell us about the mission of “Shrouded Veterans.”
FJ: Our mission is to rescue the neglected grave of Mexican War and Civil War veterans — hence “shrouded” in the name. Most of our projects are unmarked veterans’ graves. Others are existing headstones that need to be restored or replaced. Some wonderful individuals and groups are doing the same kind of work that Shrouded Veterans does, but their projects usually focus on a specific cemetery or region of the United States. The difference with Shrouded Veterans is that it crosses all state and international borders.
SB: Where did the idea for “Shrouded Veterans” come from?
FJ: Shrouded Veterans can trace its origins back to 2018 when I began writing an article for the magazine Military History about Lt. Colonel William M. Graham, an officer killed at the Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican War. I discovered that Graham’s grave at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C, was unmarked. I reached out to the cemetery’s staff and inquired how I could get a veteran headstone added to his grave. I was successfully able to get it done. I soon realized that there were many soldiers buried in unmarked graves.
SB: What’s the process of finding a gravesite that needs a makeover? Do you put priority over rank, location, or personal stories?
FJ: I feel like the graves find me. Roger D. Hunt’s Colonels in Blues book series and book Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue have been wonderful resources to help me locate some of these graves. I’m indebted to Hunt for his meticulous research. There are countless other primary and secondary sources that I have used. Sometimes I simply stumble across a grave while doing research. Find A Grave is a good starting point when I want to find out if a veteran has a grave. But it isn’t always accurate. In that case, I reach out directly to the cemetery.
I am most interested in generals and junior officers mainly because that’s my area of interest. I wouldn’t say that any specific project takes precedence over another, but I am naturally attracted to those individuals with tragic stories — those who were killed in battle or who met an unfortunate end from disease or suicide. I am currently in the process of tracking down two colonels who died in insane asylums and were buried in graves only identified by a number.
SB: What does the typical soldier look like for your projects? Do you work more with veterans of a certain war over others?
FJ: Like I mentioned above, I generally focus on generals and junior officers, but my projects are not limited to them. Civil War veterans make up the majority of my projects, followed by Mexican War veterans. Mexican War vets hold a special place in my heart. They get overshadowed by American Civil War veterans.
SB: Can you explain the process of getting a headstone replaced? How does one go about the application process?
FJ: It really starts with finding out if a soldier’s grave is unmarked or if the headstone is in poor condition. Once I have the approval of the cemetery to request a veteran headstone from the VA, I complete the necessary paperwork (pg. 4) and collect burial records, service records, obituaries, or anything else that I think is relevant to making a case to the VA. At a minimum, a claim must have proof of the veteran’s service and a record of the veteran’s burial. The more information that is submitted the better chance that the request will be approved. The VA will not do any of the footwork this work for you. You are responsible for making a solid case. Expect it to be denied if you don’t.
Once everything is collected, I print and then mail everything as one package to the cemetery. The cemetery’s staff then has to complete the bottom portion of the form (sections 25 – 35) and mail or fax everything to the VA. (Sometimes the cemetery will complete this potion and mail it back to me so that I can mail it to the VA. Either way works.) It can take four to six weeks for the cemetery to receive a headstone once the request has been approved. The cemetery’s staff then has to arrange a time to install the headstone at the grave. The whole process from start to finish can take months to years to complete.
SB: Have you ever had an application turned down? What are the typical reasons?
FJ: Definitely. It has been quite a learning experience. It’s never a good sign when I receive mail from the VA. When I do, I know that an application has been rejected without even opening it up.
The first application that I ever submitted (for Lt. Colonel William M. Graham) was rejected because I failed to include enough primary source information to verify his military service. Service records for soldiers who served before the Civil War are hard to locate. The VA is very particular about what you can submit to verity a veteran’s burial in a cemetery as well. Original burial records can be hard to come by, and Find A Grave is not sufficient evidence to prove a soldier’s burial.
The VA now emails me if something needs to be added to one of my many headstone applications. I guess they are used to seeing my name. Once in a while, the cemetery staff forgets to send a burial record along with my material to the VA. In this case, I can request a copy or photo and forward it to the VA myself — a quick fix.
SB: Have you ever visited some of the gravesites you’ve helped to restore?
FJ: Not yet, but I plan on visiting some soon. Most are scattered throughout the United States. There will be a ceremony held to honor Major General Peter J. Osterhaus in May 2021. I recently had a memorial headstone added for him at St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. His great-great-granddaughter, permitted me to request the headstone, will be there. I plan to attend the ceremony next spring.
SB: Have you ever met or communicated with a descendant of one of the soldiers you’ve “helped”?
FJ: Yes, I have. For any memorial headstone, the VA requires the consent of a living descendent. A memorial headstone, according to the VA, is, “Furnished to commemorate an eligible deceased Veteran whose remains have not been recovered or identified, were buried at sea, donated to science, or cremated and the remains scattered.” One of the most interesting people I have had the chance to correspond with is Dr. Emanuel Prinz zu Salm, the ancestor of Brevet Brigadier General Felix Salm-Salm, who is buried in Germany.
SB: Which restoration project have you been most proud of? Or do you have a favorite?
FJ: I am proud of all of them. It’s a great feeling knowing that I helped to rescue these veterans from being forgotten. Hopefully, even when I am long gone, these headstones will be around for many years. It’s a great feeling. But I really cherish those projects that are the most challenging, such as the memorial headstones that I requested for Brigadier General William Gamble and Major General Peter J. Osterhaus.
SB: How many gravesites have you worked on thus far? How many are pending?
FJ: I have completed roughly 20 projects since I started Shrouded Veterans in September 2019. It may not seem like that many, but the projects take time. I have double that amount in the works or that are “pending” — waiting for the headstone to be installed, final approval from the VA, or funds to cover the installation/foundation fee. I don’t consider a project “completed” until I have photographic evidence that the headstone is installed. Back to installation/foundation fees; some projects I have to put on hold until I raise enough money to cover the expense. That is the most frustrating part of my work. The fees can range from $200 to more than $1,500. Every cemetery is different. I am grateful for those cemeteries that waive the fee, but I understand that not all of them can do that. Unfortunately, I don’t have deep enough pockets to cover each project on my own. I wish I could.
SB: Have you come across an unusual or unique challenge with these projects that you didn’t foresee?
FJ: I would have to say international projects. I am in the process of requesting a headstone for Brevet Brigadier General James W. Britt who is buried in Montreal. This will be my first request for a headstone to be placed in another country. I have also faced some barriers and added obstacles with my projects in Colombia, Peru and Italy.
SB: What has been the most rewarding aspect thus far in your work? The most frustrating?
FJ: There is no greater satisfaction than seeing a new headstone on a grave that was previously unmarked. Besides dreaded installation/foundation fees, the most frustrating thing I encounter is not being able to locate a veteran’s exact birthdate. After an exhaustive search, sometimes I’m unable to verify the month and day the veteran was born — only the year. Nothing aggravates me more than having to process a veteran headstone claim with only the year listed. The month and day will therefore be left off of the new headstone. I guess I can’t win them all.
SB: Is there a way for the public to help in your mission?
FJ: Donations, regardless of how much, are helpful when it comes to covering installation/foundation fees. All the donations go directly to a project. I share fundraisers for specific projects on my Facebook page to help cover these expenses. I need to raise funds for the following graves: Brevet Brigadier General Hermann Lieb ($1,530), Brevet Brigadier General James W. Britt ($300), Brevet Brigadier General Milton S. Littlefield, Colonel Charles C. Marsh ($660), Colonel Alfred W. Chanty ($336), Colonel Robert Kirkup ($265), Colonel George S. Hays ($243), Colonel Richard H. Woolworth ($325), among others. If you are interested in adopting a grave or contributing toward it, reach out. As you can see, installation/foundation fees vary quite a bit depending on the cemetery.
SB: What is your ultimate, long-term goal?
FJ: Rescue as many neglected veteran graves as possible. I will keep up my work until I run out of projects to work on. But I don’t see any end in sight. But if it ever does happen, I will know that my job is done!
SB: Is there anything you’d like to add or want readers to know about you or “Shrouded Veterans”?
FJ: If you know about a veteran’s grave that is unmarked, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can message me on my Facebook page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will do whatever I can to assist. Also, I recently started writing a new column called “Final Bivouac” for the magazine America’s Civil War. I’ll be covering some fascinating and bizarre stories in each issue.