Gratitude has no expiration date.
It's why I write so often of Northwest Indiana men who fought — and in some cases died — in our nation's bloodiest war 150 years ago. Local men helped sound slavery's death knell — helped keep our United States united.
It's also the reason I write today about Sgt. William Holland and fellow members of his 111th U.S. Colored Infantry during and just after the Civil War. On the surface, these men — among the first units of black soldiers in American history — had nothing to do with Northwest Indiana.
But sometimes we must dig below the surface to realize hidden heroes.
Holland did his own share of digging during the Civil War — creating graves for Union soldiers killed in Tennesse battles. I recently visited the century-and-a-half-old handiwork of Holland and his fellow black soldiers at what is now Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Thousands of northern men killed at the 1862-63 Battle of Stones River, the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh and other Tennessee battles and skirmishes are buried in what became one of the first national cemeteries.
Hundreds of Northwest Indiana men fought at Stones River. Many, like Crown Point Pvt. John H. Early and Winfield Township Pvt. Edward Welch, died in the battle and are buried at the Stones River National Cemetery.
Holland and others of the 111th U.S. Colored dug scores of those graves as part of their military service. But truly remarkable were the actions Holland and other former slaves took to guard and preserve the graves of northern men — in the heart of a defeated and sometimes hostile white Confederate population — after their military service expired.
Holland was born a slave in Todd County, Ky., in the 1830s, and ended up serving a Tennessee slave owner, according to federal and Tennessee state records. But in the 1860s, the Union Army pushed into Tennessee, freeing slaves, including Holland, along the way. Ultimately, Holland joined the black regiment.
When the war concluded in 1865, the grisly task of recovering and relocating the remains of Union dead from various Tennessee battlefields to Stones River National Cemetery fell squarely on the shoulders of the 111th.
And after his military service concluded, Holland and other recently freed blacks of Murfreesboro created a community — actually called "Cemetery" — around the national burial grounds. Holland continued working as a laborer in the cemetery for $1 a day for 15 years after the war, and the community ensured the honorable upkeep of this most sacred shrine of sacrifice, state and federal records show.
Though very familiar with the Battle of Stones River and the valor of Northwest Indiana men there, I knew nothing of Holland until my recent visit to Stones River National Battlefield and its Hazen's Monument.
The monument, surrounded by about 40 Union graves, marks the grounds where region men helped repel some of the most brutal Confederate attacks of the war. During a dawn visit to the monument, as the first light of day illuminated the graves around it, my son Connor and I noticed two lone headstones about 12 feet outside the stone wall surrounding Hazen's Monument.
The solitary graves were those of Holland and one of his descendants. It seems even in death, Holland continues his vigil over the grounds where so many of our local boys paid with their lives.
I don't know if Holland can hear us, but I offer him timeless gratitude and ask you to do the same. Nearly 500 miles from the homes of our local men who died there, Holland and other freed slaves assumed the role of graveyard guardians, ensuring we still have a place today at which we can reflect on so much sacrifice.