Little Sumatra Cemetery tucked away in the woods has a tempestuous history for such a peaceful place.
The cemetery is wholly in Franklin County, just a few hundred feet south of the county’s border with Liberty County. It is the traditional resting place for residents of Sumatra in Liberty County.
Burial plots in the cemetery were traditionally free and the county had maintained the graveyard for years, at one point erecting a brick monument and flagpole as a tribute to veterans.
A dispute surfaced in 2002 when the owner of surrounding land, arguing the cemetery was deeded to his father, sought to control who could be buried there. The two county attorneys argued that, by precedent, Floridians have the right to be buried near close relatives if space is available, and to have access to the graves of loved ones to maintain and beautify them. Commissioner Bevin Putnal was a vocal champion of the Sumatrans.
After several months of discord, Franklin County purchased the two-acre cemetery for $10,000 in summer 2003, to avoid a lengthy court battle. The county placed it under the control of a not-for-profit created by the Sumatra Assembly of God.
Sumatra Cemetery is nearing the century mark. In 2002, William Bouington told the Times his father performed the first funeral service in 1918, for the interment of World War I casualty John Wilson McCranie. The senior Bouington presided because tiny Sumatra lacked a preacher.
There must have been other existing graves at the site since Tom Sadler of Sumatra told the Times his relatives had been buried there as far back as 1912. Possibly the sites were marked with cypress, which has since rotted away. A few cypress markers remain.
McCranie, whose resting spot is the oldest marked grave, was one of thousands of fallen soldiers returned home during World War I, which ended in Nov. 1918.
Prior to the 19th century, soldiers killed in combat were generally buried in a mass grave near the site of the battle where they died, with no further identification. During the 1800s, more of an effort was made to document the final resting place of the fallen. During the Civil War, records were kept of the death and burial of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The body count during World War I was so horrific, it became clear early on that some kind of formal record needed to be kept to allow closure for families when the fighting ceased. By the end of the First Battle of the Marne (Sept. 5-12, 1914), 250,000 soldiers of all nationalities were dead. Deaths at medical facilities could be registered and the site of the burial documented for future repatriation, but many soldiers were buried by their friends where they fell with a simple marker. Others were taken to existing burial grounds nearby or impromptu cemeteries. In all, this “Great War” claimed 16 million lives of various nationalities, most from disease.
The US entered World War I on April 6, 1917, and four months later, War Department General Order 104 authorized the organization of a Graves Registration Service. The first graves registration unit reached France on October 31 of the same year.
Individual combat units had the responsibility of burying their dead as soon as possible. Most men killed in battle were buried within 24 hours, although it sometimes took a week or longer. Great care was taken to ensure graves were properly marked. The registration service eventually moved the bodies to an American military cemetery in Europe or shipped them back to the United States.
The work of the Graves Registration Service continued until summer 1919. After the war, the Office of the Quartermaster General offered families the option of bringing their loved ones home for burial.
From 1930-1933, female relatives of soldiers who remained buried abroad were able to visit their graves under a program of the federal government called the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage.
There are three more cemeteries just south of Sumatra hidden away in the green glades of the swamp, but that’s another story.
Next week Eternity at the Brickyard.