Tennessee Historians Are Still Tracking Casualties, A Century After World War I | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee Historians Are Still Tracking Casualties, A Century After World War I

May 26, 2017

Historians are leading a movement to add more names to the bronze plaques at Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium, as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I.

The generally agreed upon figure is that 3,400 Tennesseans lost their lives in The Great War. That's how many names were etched around the memorial.

"As a rough guess, and it is only a guess, I would say as many as fifty or more are not on the walls," writes Tennessee Tech professor Michael Birdwell, who chairs the Tennessee Great War Commission. "Hopefully, we can get a full accounting in the weeks and months ahead."

Birdwell says the reasons that some names were omitted are complicated. For one, some Tennesseans ended up fighting for other countries, like Kiffin Yates Rockwell of Cocke County. Birdwell says Rockwell joined the French Foreign Legion and trained to be a pilot, becoming the first American to down an enemy aircraft.

George Ashburn of Fentress County was wounded in action but didn't die until years after the war. Birdwell says he should be listed too.

Historian Lisa Budreau with the Tennessee State Museum wrote an entire book on American casualties called Bodies of War that describes why absolute counts from World War I are so complicated. Families were given the option to let soldiers be buried in well-catalogued government cemeteries in Europe. But most of them brought their loved-one home, and many buried their soldier on private land, like a family in Burns, Tennessee. Budreau went to see a red, white and blue hut with a little tin roof, built over the soldier's grave.

"You could just peer inside and you could see the headstone that the family had raised over the remains," she says.

The other complicating factor, especially about World War I, is that many soldiers died far from the action. For the man from Burns, Budreau says he got sick at a camp in New York.

"There are all these distinctions, and in a way it takes away from the honor of a glorious death, by comparing those who were actually killed on the battlefield and those who may have died in a camp somewhere of pneumonia," she says.

In the end, Budreau says she's not so concerned about the exact tally of Tennessee deaths, but rather, honoring the individuals, like several African Americans who were left off the original plaques.

"There's just a little space on there," she says. "So who knows."