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 Murray County Museum  
MURRAY COUNTRY FAMILIES

Brownlow Whitener
the First Murray Soldier
Buried in Arlington Cemetery


A massive explosion sank The Maine, an American Battleship, in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. Whether the explosion was an accident or an attack by Spain on the American vessel will probably never be conclusively resolved.

The United States declared war on Spain in April and President McKinley called for 25,000 volunteers.

Living in Murray County at the time, William Everett Whitener and Cynthia (Sinyard) Whitener, had five sons: Harley, Avery, Brownlow, Albert Samuel, and William Adolphus. Like many farm families of that time, the Whiteners did not own their own farm. They moved from place to place fairly frequently, living wherever they could find a land-owner willing to hire them for a year or two. Brownlow, the middle son, had been born in Gilmer County, probably in 1878, but his family subsequently lived at various times in Fannin, Gilmer, and Murray. They were living near Crandall when the boys went off to war.

Folks living in Murray County in 1898 had little knowledge of, or contact with, the world beyond the adjacent counties. The only newspaper then being published in Murray was the Spring Place Jimplecute. How then, did the Whiteners even learn of the war or the call for volunteers? And what enticed the brothers to volunteer? After all, unpleasant memories of the Civil War, ended less than 35 years earlier, remained fresh. Further, the call for volunteers came from the former military foe of that war. The answers to these questions probably will never be known.

Although it is known that some of his brothers also volunteered for the conflict, none of their names appear on the roll of Company K, 3rd U. S. Volunteers, the unit to which Brownlow was assigned.

Brownlow's unit was mustered into service in June 1898, at Macon, where the men received military training. The soldiers departed Macon on August 6. They arrived at Santiago, Cuba on or about August 18, where the regiment was split into several groups assigned to different stations across Cuba. Colonel Patrick Henry Ray commanded the regiment, which had the specific assignment to receive the surrender of Spanish troops and take control of their weapons. Colonel Ray set up his headquarters at Guantanamo, Cuba. Brownlow Whitener, assigned to Company K, was also at that base.

None of the men serving with Brownlow ever engaged in battle. All except three of the men experienced Cuban chills and fevers. Thirty-four of Colonel Ray's men died from such illness, among them Brownlow Whitener, on February 27, 1899.

Those men who survived returned to Macon on April 8, 1999, and were mustered out May 1, 1899. The unit had been in existence less than a year.

By the time that his former comrades arrived back in Macon, Brownlow's body had been returned to the United States and buried, with impressive military honors, in Arlington Cemetery, overlooking Washington, D.C. Whether Brownlow's family knew of this at the time is a matter of curiosity.

Most of the soldiers interred in Arlington up till then had died in the Civil War. Officials in Washington decided to retrieve bodies of many of those who had died in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War and return them to the United States. The body of Brownlow Whitener, positively identified, was one of 336 soldiers brought to Arlington for burial on April 6, 1899.

Because so many had died from yellow fever, officials ordered extreme caution in handling and transporting the bodies from the Caribbean. They ordered that each body had to be disinfected, then rolled inside a tarpaulin. The body was then put inside a hermetically sealed, metal coffin. Each coffin was then placed inside a strong pine box and the space between the coffin and the box walls was filled with sawdust. The outer box was then nailed shut. Because of these extraordinary measures each box weighed more than 500 pounds and required 8 men to move.

The sealed boxes had been placed aboard the U. S. Transport Crook to be brought to Brooklyn. When the Crook docked in Brooklyn, March 10, 1899, the boxes destined for Arlington cemetery were taken to Jersey City where they were put aboard a special train deaped in mourning, to be taken to Washington, D.C.

Arlington Cemetery officials, in preparation for burying this first group of soldiers from the Spanish-American War, had greatly expanded the burying ground that had originally been created on the grounds of Arlington House, Robert E. Lee's home, confiscated by the federal government after Lee opted to support the Confederacy. They had added several acres that overlooked the Potomac River, the recently completed Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Institution, and, in the distance, the U. S. Capitol.

Dignitaries attending the impressive ceremony, planned for the interment of 336 men who had answered their country's call for military service, included the President of the United States, William McKinley, most of his cabinet heads, as well as senators and congressmen too numerous to list. Several foreign governments had sent senior members of their diplomatic staffs assigned to Washington. Beyond the hundreds of military personnel who would participate in the ceremony, hundreds of others came to pay respects. An estimated 15,000 ordinary Americans, many of whom had lost loved ones in the recent conflict, had also come to the observance.

Even if Brownlow's family had been aware of the ceremony, it is unlikely that they, or any of his friends and neighbors from Georgia, could have afforded to make a trip to Washington to attend. In those tough times such things seldom were done.

On that sunny, April afternoon, 336 wooden boxes, each draped with an American flag, had been arranged in parallel rows beside newly dug graves. The eight boxes containing the caskets of officers had been placed at the head of the line of graves, in positions of honor nearest to the President's entourage seated on the raised platform built for the special occasion.

An enclosure surrounding the grave sites ensured that only military men would be allowed inside the perimeter until the ceremony had been concluded. Even grieving relatives of the dead soldiers were kept outside that perimeter.

Artillery men in red jackets stood in a open area near the head of the rows of caskets, waiting for the command to fire the final salute to be accorded the dead soldiers. The Fourth Artillery Band stood near them, ready to provide music appropriate for the occasion. Among the rows of open graves, military men in uniform stood beside each casket.

The start of the ceremony was delayed because the Presidential party arrived late. When his entourage had taken their positions on the platform, they were followed closely by the commanding general of the army, General Miles. Military attaches from the German and British Embassies, and other high-ranking military personnel, all astride horses, arrived next.

To signal that the ceremony was about to begin, the military band play the "Dead March." Next they played "Nearer My God to Thee."

Military Chaplain C. W. Freeland, from Fort Monroe, Virginia, and Father Joseph F. McGee, from St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Washington, had been selected to conduct the religious portions of the ceremony. Rev. Freeland, an Episcopalian, and the Rev. Father McGee, wore the regalia associated with their respective positions. Father McGee was accompanied by three altar boys wearing purple robes.

Reverend Freeland read the military committal service of the Episcopal Church. This service begins, "Man that is born of woman," and concludes with the words, "I am the resurrection and the life."

As he intoned the words, "Dust to dust, earth to earth," soldiers beside each of the open graves dropped a handful of dirt upon each casket. Those assembled then prayed together The Lord's Prayer.

Father McGee consecrated the graves of the Catholic soldiers that they might rest in hallowed ground.

From nearby Fort Meyer, a cannon boomed. The flags at Arlington House and Fort Meyer were lowered to half -mast. Flags all over Washington and across both Cuba and Puerto Rico soon followed.

Flanking detachments of the Fourth and Fifth Artillery fired three volleys to honor their dead comrades. Then the haunting sounds of "Taps," familiar to every military man, echoed across the cemetery, signaling the end of the ceremony honoring the fallen soldiers.

The President and his party filed from the platform and departed under appropriate military escort. Honored guests departed immediately behind them.

Perimeter barriers were then removed, allowing friends and family members of the dead, to approach the caskets. The actual burial of so many boxes would take nearly three days.

A second, similar, mass burial took place in December of the same year. The bodies of some 160 men that had been recovered soon after the explosion of The Maine were retrieved from their temporary graves in Cuba and buried in the same section of Arlington Cemetery.

More than a decade passed before government officials decided to remove the wreckage of The Maine from Havana Harbor. From within the wreckage remains of 66 more victims were recovered. These were brought to Arlington in 1912, to be buried near their shipmates.

Still later the mast of The Maine was incorporated into a memorial and placed near the top of the hill where the dead from the war with Spain had been buried. This monument was dedicated on the anniversary date of the explosion, February 15, 1915.

Note: Brownlow Whitener's tombstone has his name as "B. F. Whitner" (the first "e" was left out.). His grave is in Section 22, grave #15860, between Lawton Drive and McPherson Drive.

 



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