In the little town of Gray, Maine, 16 miles north of Portland, as in thousands of similar places all across our land, the graves in the cemetery in the center of the town are bedecked and decorated with flowers on Memorial Day. Sprinkled among these flowers, as in many cemeteries on this day, are American flags marking the final resting places of those who gave their lives in defense of their country — but in this cemetery in Gray there is a difference.
Over one of the graves, proudly waving in the breeze, flies the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, and behind this lone flag, freshly replaced every year, lies an interesting story.
Shortly after the battle of Cedar Mountain on August 18, 1862 (also known as the second battle of Bull Run, or Manassas), the parents of Lt. Charles H. Colley, of Company B of the 10th Maine Volunteers, were notified that their son had been gravely wounded. Still later, they were advised that he had died, at Alexandria, Virginia, on September 20.
In those days, the family had to pay for embalming and shipping costs if they wanted the body of their loved one returned. Amos and Sarah Colley were simple farm people of Gray, but they did want their son’s body back to lie properly in the town burying ground, and promptly sent the money.
When the supposed body arrived, they opened the casket for a last, farewell look at their son—but found instead the fully uniformed body of an unknown Confederate soldier. Their consternation and grief can only be imagined, but after much correspondence, the body of Lieutenant Colley was located and shipped to Gray to rectify the error.
In the meantime, the elder Colleys had the body of a young Confederate soldier on their hands, and the government distinctly did not want him back. What to do?
It was decided to bury the body in the little cemetery at Gray. Later, a group of the women of the town — many of whom had by this time lost husbands or sons in the terrible war — took up a collection to mark the grave of the lonely soldier buried so far from home. The simple granite stone stands today almost in the middle of this cemetery, inscribed simply,
“Stranger. A soldier of the late War, died 1862. Erected by the Ladies of Gray.”
The iron marker at the foot of this grave differs slightly from those of the local G.A.R. Post 78, however. Over its star is inscribed simply “Veteran 1861-65.”
When a formal, nationwide Memorial Day was instituted in 1868, the women of Gray placed a Confederate flag at this grave, along with the flags honoring the other veterans of the War Between the States. Members of the local G.A.R. post took over the task after their organization in the 1870s, and it was later continued by the Sons of Veterans.
In recent years, the Ladies Relief Corps auxiliary has carried on this now firmly fixed custom — unique, so far as this writer knows, in New England.