PINCKNEYVILLE — On Feb. 15, 1862, thousands of Union soldiers converged on Fort Donelson in Tennessee, preparing to advance against the thousands of Confederate soldiers there.

In the end, Ulysses S. Grant and his forces prevailed, taking control of the fort, signaling the way for the Union Army to move into the Southern States’ stronghold. For his win, Grant was promoted to major general by then President Abraham Lincoln.

Forging up the hill that day were some men from the 31st Illinois Infantry Regiment, which included such Pinckneyville men as 41-year-old Pvt. Samuel Watkins and at least 14 other men from the Pinckneyville area.

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John Stanton and grandson

John Stanton and his grandson, 17-year-old Justin Ottolini, will be among the volunteers cleaning up Civil War veterans tombstones on Saturday morning, Sept. 16, 2017, in Pinckneyville.

Though the battle was won from that attack, Watkins and 14 others lost their lives, Watkins, who had enlisted six months earlier, succumbing to a gunshot that went through his hip area. Their families traveled from Southern Illinois over a path that was not paved to bring back the bodies of their loved ones.

They have been interred in graves on the Fort Donelson property, but were re-interred closer to home in what is known as The Long Grave, a line of 21 graves of Civil War era soldiers in the Pinckneyville City Cemetery. In addition to the 15 who died in the Battle of Fort Donelson, six others were buried there after they died in other Civil War conflict.

On Saturday, Watkins great-great-great-great grandson, John Stanton, and his grandson, 17-year-old Justin Ottolini, and fellow Civil War fans, plan to spruce up the gravestones, cleaning them of vegetation and cleaning up the grounds. Joining him in the cleanup will be members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.

"I’m paying honor to my ancestor and these early men," Stanton said. "We are sons of union veterans and we have been tasked by those veterans, when they died, (of keeping their history and work going)."

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Civil War graves in Pinckneyville cemetery

In 2012k Mike Jones, a historian with the John A. Logan Museum in Jackson County, had questions about who these Civil War soldiers were who were buried in these 21 graves; 15 of the Pinckneyville and Perry County residents died in a single day, Feb. 15, 1862, at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee,

Stanton said he learned about his Civil War ancestor from his grandmother, a descendant of Watkins'. He said he spent much time there when he was younger, often returning to Pinckneyville during the summer, spending time at his grandparent's farm.

He said he asked lots of questions and his grandmother filled him in with details: About how her great-great-grandfather father, a widow who had remarried, volunteered to fight on the Union side, leaving behind a child who was a 5-year-old.

He enlisted in the army on Aug. 15, 1861; six months later, he was killed in battle.

When “their families were told about it, they went down and got them,” Stanton said, traveling 175 miles one way over the rough, unpaved route. “It was a monumental feat to bring them home.”

“They’d been buried down there first in Tennessee — there is a military cemetery down there,” Stanton said.  “They dug them up and brought them home.”

Stanton said he'd planned to clean up the graves of the Civil War soldiers, but when he mentioned it to fellow members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, they wanted to help out.  That group is based in the Belleville area.

The group will clean the white limestone tombstones with a Veterans Administration approved cleanser that will clean moss, lichen and other plants from it within about six months, he said.  The sun, rain and other elements should help clear the vegetation from the stones, leaving them white and unstained by the plants and dirt, he said.

"As a little boy, I mowed his grave down there," Stanton said.

“I just feel it’s important to know where you come from,” Stanton said.  "I just don’t understand how people go through life blind and don’t want to know (about their family background)."

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Murphysboro and Perry County.

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