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Digital mapping, cataloguing grave sites brings veterans' stories to life

The National Cemetery Administration hosted a day of learning at Florida National Cemetery.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

By COLLEEN JONES | The St. Augustine Record, Fla. | Published: May 17, 2018

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Holding up a copy of the etching on one of the headstones, Scot French stood in the St. Augustine National Cemetery on Tuesday and had a student read aloud the description for one Lt. J.W.S. McNeil.

He asked the group — an assortment of home-schooled students from Orlando — what the words could tell us about the way McNeil, a U.S. Army veteran of the Second Seminole War, lived and died.

French, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, pointed out it was interesting the narrative specified that the 21-year-old was killed by Uchee Billy, a Seminole chief, in 1837.

He then had the group examine the text on another headstone, this one for Dr. Charles Noyes, a 27-year-old Army surgeon who "never knew a stranger," as noted by his loved ones.

"I think the detail of the emotion here is pretty amazing," commented Connie Linch, an eighth-grader from Geneva.

Through the work French, his colleagues, undergraduate and graduate students of UCF are doing, the aim is to use technology to help bring the stories of veterans from many chapters of American history to life.

The Veterans Legacy Program, a joint project of the National Cemetery Administration and educational partners like the University of Central Florida, is in the process of digitally mapping and cataloguing all 1,227 grave sites at the St. Augustine National Cemetery, including those of Noyes and McNeil. By later this year, an "augmented reality" mobile application will allow smartphone users to hold their device up to a headstone which will then pull up the matching background information on that specific veteran.

The project at UCF is being led by associate professor Amelia Lyons. Since 2016, the group has used primary source-based research to learn more about veterans buried in St. Augustine as well as the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, an offshoot of the same project. The goal of the student-authored biographies is to frame those stories in greater historical context and with richer personal details. Eventually, they will all be compiled on this website: https://vlp.cah.ucf.edu/. The group hopes to finish its work in time for Veterans Day, when the mobile app will also be available for visitors.

The St. Augustine National Cemetery was established as a 1.5-acre burial place on the grounds of a military post, the St. Francis Barracks, with the first known plot in 1828. The cemetery is closed to new interments. Veterans from the following American wars are memorialized there: War of 1812, Second Seminole War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.

The Dade Monument is made up three coquina pyramids erected in 1842 to mark the end of the Seminole Wars. The monuments pay homage to the 1,468 soldiers who died during the wars, some of whose remains are contained within.

The headstone for one plot in the cemetery reads simply: "Six unknown Indians."

"But now," French said, "they are unknown no longer because of the research we're doing to fill in the blanks."

Another goal of the Veterans Legacy Program is to create a K-12 curriculum around the project which allows students to interact with the data at a grade-appropriate level for use by teachers nationwide. UCF faculty led the home-schooling group through what they called a "Day of Learning" Tuesday at the St. Augustine National Cemetery.

Said Glenn Powers, deputy under-secretary for field programs with the National Cemetery Administration for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said, "I think any of our national cemeteries are extraordinary places to learn about service and sacrifice. .. It's said that no veteran ever dies, and with programs like this their lives live on, their stories go on."

©2018 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.
Visit The St. Augustine Record, Fla. at www.staugustine.com
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St. Augustine National Cemetery in Florida.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

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