By Janie Southard
MONTEZUMA -- Confederate Soldier Timothy Wright Merritt has rested in the Watson Cemetery in North Carolina for 73 years under the wrong tombstone.
Recently his great-great-grandchildren righted that wrong, not only with a new stone but also a ceremony including Civil War re-enactors.
Montezuma resident and genealogist Robert A. Marley, Merritt's great-great-grandson, and Sharon Marley Hege of Lexington, N.C., the great-great-granddaughter, joined forces to bring about the brand new stone, but not without a lot of legwork.
"We didn't just go in and have the stone changed. We did a lot of investigation and, I think, finally got to the bottom of the mistake. It was just that, a son honoring his father, but with the wrong information," Marley told The Daily Standard last week.
The crux of the situation was that the tombstone did indeed mark the grave of a T.W. Merritt, but the tombstone said Thomas W. Merritt, instead of the correct name, Timothy W. Merritt. Marley said he can easily understand how that mistake was made. It has to do with the alphabet. "For some reason that we don't know my great-great-grandfather was always called T.W. and even called himself T.W. I guess he didn't like the name Timothy," Marley said, as he flipped through a stack of old documents all presenting the name T.W. Merritt.
Timothy W., who served with Company 1, First North Carolina Cavalry, enlisted at age 19 and served with J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee. He was, in fact, waiting outside at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, as Lee surrendered.
Born in 1842, he served with the Confederacy from March 1862 through April 1865 and died in 1904.
What is known of Thomas W. is that he served with Co. B, 51st North Carolina Infantry.
But Thomas comes before Timothy in military records. So in 1932 when the U.S. War Department finally furnished gravestones to honor Confederate soldiers, Merritt's son Maury Ward Merritt (M.W.) looked at a Confederate roster and came first to Thomas.
"It's possible, even probable, he didn't know his father's name was Timothy because he'd always heard him referred to as T.W. Remember these were common people, not highly educated. Well, look at his wife's story," Marley said.
T.W.'s wife's given name was Teresa, according to Marley. But in the dialect of that Southern locale, she was called Terencer or Terencey. In fact, county marriage records list her as "Terencer" and her own signature on the July 10, 1928, application for a widow's pension is "Terencey." Her witness and neighbor wrote her name as "Tyrancey" on his part of the application.
But it was the numbers that caused Marley to question the tombstone.
"Documents my dad had showed T.W.'s regiment and so forth, so I knew the information on the original tombstone was wrong. Of course, later I saw where that information belonged to Thomas W.," said Marley, adding it was years getting this matter straightened out.
"But, you know, the majority of people with relatives in the military have no idea of which regiment, company, battalion, whatever they were in," he pointed out.
Marley credits state Rep. John A. Boehner's office with pulling some strings in the National Archives and Records Administration, which netted Marley a copy of the original 1932 headstone application, which in turn put him onto the probable alphabet mixup.
So far, so good. But this second tombstone, this time from the Veterans Administration also was incorrect. Numbers, again.
"The birth and death dates were wrong. So the funeral home down there, Quinn McGowen, graciously offered to take care of getting another one. Just a couple months later the third one arrived, and it was correct. The funeral home accepted delivery and installed the stone and didn't charge us anything," Marley said.
However, with all the government red tape, breakdowns in communication, and so forth, the matter rested to a great degree with a granddaughter's recollections and family traditions.
Edna Strickland, T.W.'s granddaughter, now 86, completed an affidavit stating she had always accepted that the gravestone provided by the government was correct.
"I have tended and decorated the grave of my mother's father, many times in her presence, for seven decades," Strickland said in the legal document.
Her mother, Terencer, knew T.W. was the man in the grave, having personally attended his burial. In fact, she is now buried in the adjacent plot.
Marley speculates again about the name versus the initials.
"It sounds unbelievable, but it must be true. No one living when the time finally came for the tombstone knew his given name, even his children," he said.