I restore Confederate headstones and monuments. I travel from the back yard and beyond to recently vandalized cemeteries on main roads and those tucked away in states of hidden neglect. My work is mistaken as grim and, coupled with a taxidermy business, the peculiarities of my trades are considered macabre. However, the telos of what I do is this: I preserve things.
In May of 2016, this work found me praying over the grave of a Confederate soldier; not for his soul, but for his headstone not to fall and crush me before the joining mortar had set. I’d spent three days restoring Confederate monuments in far Eastern Oklahoma and his was the last. Just before sunset, the headstone stood sturdy, clean and legible again. As written, it read:
“John G. Lipe
Jan. 1. 1844
in battle July 27. 1862
A Confederate Soldier.”
That there was the sum of a man’s existence writ in stone, the words chosen by those who knew and loved him best. It was raised to serve as a partition punctuating his life apart from his death, a welcoming of God’s work to reclaim him.
For the kin who buried him, those words were enough, but after hours of staring at each letter, of scraping and cleaning each groove, it’s easy for someone to feel that they have a right to know more.
Preservation is basically a war against entropy and tracking down information about the long since dead is often a fruitless endeavor. It’s a Sisyphean task, however, I love this quiet work I do.
After I cleaned the site of buckets, brushes and solution sprayers, I hurried home to begin digging into who John G. Lipe was. I found so many fascinating and beautiful details of his young life. Mr. Lipe was killed in 1862 during a skirmish with Union soldiers on Bayou Menard in Indian Territory, near Fort Gibson. He served under Brigadier General Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to surrender. I even found a letter Mr. Lipe wrote to his sister-in-law which included a poem that appears to be a premonition of his impending death.
“I stand at the portal and knock, and
tearfully, prayerfully wait,
O! who will unfasten the lock, and open
The beautiful gate?
Forever and ever and ever,
Must I linger and suffer alone?
Are there none that are able to sever,
The fetters that keep me from home?
My spirit is lonely and weary, I long for
The beautiful streets.
The work is so chilly and dreary,
And bleeding and torn are my feet.”
A month later I returned to inspect the work on his headstone. This visit was more meaningful now that I had such intimate context. It felt different, more dear, and as I sat on the grass at his family plot, I read his poem again.
As Stephen Elliott, a Confederate Bishop in the Episcopal Church, observed in an 1862 eulogy; “We all have our dead. We all have our graves.”
John G. Lipe was one of ours, and this grave was his.
-By K. Faye
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel, now that's just what I am; For this "Fair Land of Freedom" I do not give a damn! I'm glad I fit against it, I only wish we'd won, And I don't want no pardon for anything I done.