Restoring a Historic Cemetery is a Mission of Recognition

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Charles Johnson drives a PVC pipe, which will hold an American flag, into the ground by the headstone of veteran Abraham Costen; Carla Purvis is poised at right, ready to place the flag. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – The wife of a U.S. Navy veteran made it her life’s mission to restore a historic cemetery near Cheriton when she learned that the nearly abandoned, overgrown site was the final resting place of five African American Civil War soldiers who had served in the Union.

The men deserve “to be recognized as veterans of the United States” and to have their graves restored with respect and dignity, said Carla Purvis, who has been working on the project with her husband, Glenn Purvis.

Carla and Glenn Purvis, who live in Eastville, were out for a drive one day in early February, near Cheriton, when they passed the old cemetery near the corner of Sunnyside Road and Seaside Road, where the town’s original African Baptist Church began gathering under an oak tree in 1868.

When Glenn Purvis told his wife that Union soldiers were buried in the cemetery, and she saw how it was overgrown and filled with trash that had been carelessly dumped there, Carla Purvis was moved to tears. She resolved then and there to do something about it.

Purvis contacted leadership at the African Baptist Church and received permission to restore the grounds and the 19 graves located there, five of which were known at the time to belong to Union soldiers.

The first thing Carla and Glenn Purvis did was to clear out the 1/4-acre parcel, removing trash and debris.

Carla Purvis estimated about 50 or 60 years worth of overgrowth was removed, as well as trash including hundreds of empty wine and liquor bottles and large broken pieces of concrete (which did not belong to any of the graves). The couple had six dump truck loads of trash and debris hauled away.

They are now seeking to borrow a stump grinder or find a volunteer to grind down the remains of large tree roots that had grown out of the ground and were cut down.

Carla Purvis has turned to identifying the graves of civilians and soldiers, researching their genealogies, and repairing the headstones that were damaged by overgrowth.

Roots had grown around some of the headstones, causing them to chip, crack, or break. One headstone was defaced after it broke and fell facedown on the ground, where it stayed for a prolonged period.

One headstone near the corner of the property was almost completely buried under dirt and overgrowth and was labeled “unidentified” on an esva.net page on Eastern Shore cemeteries.

Purvis removed the debris concealing the headstone and found a “prize”: it was the headstone of Abraham Costen, of the 10th regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry (USCI).

His surname is misspelled “Coston” on his headstone, but Purvis determined the correct spelling of “Costen” from military records.

The headstone of another soldier also contains an error – William Custis, also of the 10th USCI, whose surname is misspelled “Custus” on his headstone.

Another discovery Purvis made was that the cemetery contains the graves of not five but six men who served in the military.

The sixth veteran is Severn Goffigon, who has a civilian headstone but joined the military at age 14. Due to his age, his duties were limited and he did not serve in combat. Goffigon’s records show that he was mustered in and out of the military on repeated occasions, and he died at age 18.

The six veterans laid to rest in the old African Baptist Church cemetery near Cheriton are:

  • Abraham Costen, Company A, 10th regiment of the USCI
  • William Custis, Company A, 10th regiment of the USCI
  • Severn Goffigon, born June 1, 1855; died Aug. 9, 1873
  • P. Nottingham, U.S. Navy
  • Henry West, Company B, 10th regiment of the USCI
  • William Weeks Sr., Company D, 10th regiment of the USCI

Many of the other 13 graves in the cemetery belong to the soldiers’ relatives or wives, who are usually buried next to their husbands.

Some of the civilians buried in the cemetery remain a mystery, which Purvis hopes to uncover with further research, such as Ruth Knight, who died in 1897 at age 81 and was married four times – but not to any of the men buried in the cemetery. Purvis has not yet made a family connection between Knight and any of the other individuals buried in the cemetery.

Another mystery is Pearl Goffigon, who died July 4, 1899, age 23, and who might be the wife of Arthur Goffigon, who is buried next to veteran Severn Goffigon. Purvis has yet to find a connection between Pearl and Arthur Goffigon, but she has found information about another Pearl Goffigon, a man.

Purvis, a 67-year-old retiree, spends about 30 hours a week researching at home and working in the cemetery.

She is meticulously restoring every detail of every grave, from headstone to footstone, following the directions of a professional in the monument business who Purvis knew when she and her husband lived in Texas, before they retired on the Eastern Shore in 2014.

The location and position of each headstone must be exact. Many of the headstones have been moved away from the bodies whose graves the headstones mark, because the headstones may have broken or fallen down and were set back up in the wrong place.

Purvis also makes sure each headstone faces east. She learned that all headstones in Christian  cemeteries must face east for the second coming of Christ, according to Christian belief.

It becomes apparent that restoring the cemetery is a labor of love for Purvis when she calls each headstone “him” or “her,” referencing the person to whom the marker belongs.

Having a husband and a father who were veterans also adds meaning to the experience. Purvis’ father, who died last year, was a World War II veteran.

She is rebuilding the brick bases of several headstones, taking care to put each brick back in exact order. She pours in dry concrete mix, allowing it to combine with rainfall and harden naturally.

Purvis has spent hundreds of dollars finding the right products to restore the headstones without causing further damage. The first broken headstone she repaired was glued together with a masonry epoxy that dried gray, but she has since found a clear-drying epoxy.

She cleans the headstones with a natural moss, mold, mildew, and algae stain remover that can be sprayed on and left to dry. Bleach or acid should never used to clean headstones, Purvis noted. If she brushes the headstones, she uses only a soft nylon brush, as metal bristles would deface the fragile sandstone.

The headstone of a woman named Violet Weeks already was defaced when Purvis found it because it had broken and fallen over and had been face down on the ground for a prolonged period.

The restoration of the defaced headstone will include the use of acrylic paint to make small dots in the crevices, making the lettering appear clearer and more legible.

Purvis enjoys the peace and solitude of working alone but also welcomes help. Another local veteran and a member of the African Baptist Church, Charles Johnson, stopped by before Memorial Day to place an American flag on each soldier’s grave.

She envisions the finished project as a lush, green meadow dotted with white headstones, and perhaps a replica Civil War split-rail fence out front.

What she considers a “great humanitarian and community service project” still has a long way to go, but it appears Purvis’ passion for the project supplies her with endless energy.

The work started when she and her husband visited the cemetery Feb. 4 and “we haven’t stopped since.”

An eastward-facing view from the old African Baptist Church cemetery near Cheriton. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.
William Custis, Company A, 10th regiment of the USCI
Henry West, Company B, 10th regiment of the USCI – the only veteran in the cemetery whose grave has a replica of his helmet in concrete as a footstone.
Abraham Costen, Company A, 10th regiment of the USCI
William Weeks Sr., Company D, 10th regiment of the USCI
Severn M. Goffigon; born June 1, 1855; died Aug. 9, 1873
P. Nottingham, U.S. Navy