Updated: Jun 30
Tombstones, especially military ones, are great ways to trace history. And the history gathered from a tombstone needn't be from your family member, either - sometimes, getting to know strangers from their past life is just as interesting.
This tombstone for Alvin Reeves is located in the African American portion of Gates Hill Cemetery on South Main Street in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas. Alvin Reeves served as the bugler for the 815th pioneer infantry. This unit was trained in Kansas and was sent to France in 1918. He may have stayed until 1919, which is when most troops turned home.
The United States entered World War I in 1917 because the British intercepted a coded telegram from Germany containing the message that if Mexico kept the US occupied in a war with German help, Mexico would retrieve the lands they lost in the Mexican cession (1848)... plus Texas.
WWI was called "The Great War" before anyone knew there'd be a WWII. It was the first war to institute a nation-wide draft. The U.S. introduced the selective service system to make the draft fairer than previous ones, when a draftee could pay his way out of service if he was rich enough.
African American soldiers were also drafted, of course. They served in segregated regiments. Initially engaged as support personnel, their tasks including building camps and posts for the U.S. army as it began to enter France. Some soliders stayed in France rather than returning home to the U.S., especially if they were from the South. Knowledge and fear of several horrific lynching and other violent events - like the 1916 "Waco Horror" and the 1919 mass murder of sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas - made the transition quite easy. The majority of French had no segregation laws and did not treat African Americans as racially inferior... they simply saw the men as "les Americains" and demonstrated their gratitude towards the soldiers.
I read that the American infantry units introduced many a Frenchman to baseball and jazz music. I also read that American soldiers did not care much for French food. The French and English soldiers were amazed that American soldiers tended to be less precise in their dress code, but very respectful of private property. According to local accounts, the American were in constant search to buy "souvenirs and other trinkets to bring home."
Prior to the draft, Alvin Reeves worked at the Planters Cotton Oil Company. After he returned home, he resumed work in a cotton oil mill. During the Great Depression, he joined the WPA as a laborer, building public works projects. In 1942, Mr. Reeves was once again required to register for the draft, but he wasn't called up. He died in Bonham in 1953.
Here's what's neat about finding old military graves: lives that we wouldn't normally know suddenly become reanimated. Getting to know a deceased veteran, even if he or she is a stranger, ensures that they, and their sacrifice, will not be forgotten.