Hundreds of families stream onto Fort Knox Army Base in Kentucky every Memorial Day to pay their respects to loved ones buried in one of the 121 cemeteries here. It’s the only day a year the base allows entry to visit the graves.
Genealogy buff Peggy Smith says it gives her a chance to reconnect with relatives including her great grandmother Martha Harrison who was a widow of a Civil War veteran. “She’s buried here because it was part of the family farm,” Smith explains. “She’s buried in Lincoln Cemetery and her mother is buried there too. My great uncle and great grandfather both joined the Civil War without telling their wives.”
There are more than 35,600 people buried at Fort Knox, including soldiers who fought in battles dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Lincoln Cemetery also is the burial place for some of Abraham Lincoln’s relatives, including his grandmother Bersheba Lincoln and an aunt. “In fact, his aunt’s granddaughter married my great uncle, the one who enlisted in the Civil War with my great grandfather.”
“This year was my second time visiting the cemetery on Memorial Day,” says Smith. “When I arrived at the base this year, a gentleman at the welcome center recognized my great grandmother’s name and asked me if I knew about the Harrison letters. As it turns out, the base is in possession of letters that my great uncle Absolom Harrison wrote to his wife Susan Allstun Harrison. She’s the ancestor of President Lincoln I was talking about.” (click here to read the letters)
Most of the cemeteries have ties to former area towns such as Grahamton, Pitts Point and Stithton that ceased to exist when the Army bought the land for the Army base in 1942.
Fort Knox Cultural Resources Manager Chris Helmkamp recently told a Louisville TV station that the cemeteries range in size from a single individual to hundreds of people. “We get calls and questions from people throughout the year and it all kind of culminates on Memorial Day,” he says.
Helmkamp says the reason the base only allows access to the cemeteries once a year is because Fort Knox’s main mission is military training. “Most of our cemeteries are located in training areas or on firing ranges,” he explains. “If we allowed people to come in on a piecemeal basis, we’d have to shut down training.”
Smith, who grew up in western Kentucky, credits an aunt for getting her interested in genealogy. “I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution and we had to do a family tree going back to the Revolutionary War. That also helped spark an interest.”
While visiting her family’s graves, she says she discovered two more relatives, both children, who are listed in her genealogy book as unknown. “I actually have other family members who are buried at Fort Knox. My great grandmother’s family is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.”
Smith says when she put information about her family history on Facebook, she learned a relative of her best friend from school is also buried on the base. “As it turns out, he was married to a cousin of mine and neither one of us are from this area.”
When her aunt passed away, she left Smith her genealogy book that she had worked on for years. “The book is very detailed. And what I like most about it is my aunt’s personal memories that she notes throughout the book,” Smith says “This is my past. And you don’t know who you are until you know your past.”
Until next time….