James Cain plans to don a Union Army uniform on Memorial Day to help dedicate a stone marker at Camp Nelson National Cemetery for his great-great-grandfather, who was killed in the Civil War.
Monday will be particularly special for Cain because, until recently, he knew almost nothing about his great-great-grandfather, other than some vague references he'd heard from his own father.
"My son, who is 47 years old, told me, 'You've got to start writing down some things because I want to know something about the family,'" Cain said. "So, I started doing genealogy. About all I had to go on was the last name Gerke, but no first name. I didn't even have a date.
"Fortunately, the state of Kentucky kept good records of all the people who entered the army during the Civil War and all those who were killed."
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At 2 p.m. Monday, Camp Nelson will hold a separate ceremony, which will include rifle and cannon salutes, honoring Cain's great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Lewis H. Gerke of Pulaski County. Gerke joined the Union Army in 1861 and died fighting at the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1863. Camp Nelson's traditional Memorial Day ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. Monday.
The activities at Camp Nelson will be among countless ceremonies across the area on Monday — some public, some private, all meaningful — as Kentuckians pause to remember lost loved ones on Memorial Day.
The origins of the holiday date to 1868, when soldiers killed in the Civil War were honored.
Cain will be joined by other members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs Camp 5, based in Nicholasville. Members of the chapter of the organization, which was created in 1881, helped him with some of his research.
Cain said Gerald Girkey of Somerset, a cousin he never knew he had until he ran across him while researching his great-great-grandfather's story, also plans to be on hand. Cain notes that Gerke family members spelled the name several ways.
Here's what Cain learned about his ancestor:
Lewis Gerke was born in Germany about 1837 and sailed to America about a year later with his parents, sister and three brothers. The Gerke family arrived at the port of Baltimore, passed through Cincinnati and headed into Kentucky, stopping in Pulaski County.
Some family members later moved to Indiana, but Lewis Gerke remained in Pulaski County, got married and became a farmer.
Records show he enlisted in the Union Army in August 1861, roughly four months after the Civil War began, becoming a member of Co. C, 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. Thousands of others also were joining the Union cause at that time and many, like Gerke, were immigrants still relatively new to America.
"He might have joined up for the money because he was married and had children," Cain said. "Or perhaps he was unhappy because he and his family had come to America seeking freedom and now war with the South was breaking out."
Whatever the reason, Gerke wound up at a place called Chickamauga in northwestern Georgia, where Union and Confederate armies fought for two bloody days, Sept. 19 and 20, 1863. The Confederates won, but both sides paid a huge price. Chickamauga caused more casualties than any other Civil War battle except Gettysburg.
Cain said his great-great-grandfather is thought to be buried in Chattanooga, along with about 5,000 other Chickamauga soldiers, most in unmarked graves.
But Gerke's service to his country qualifies him for a marker at Camp Nelson.
Cain said he's proud of his great-great-grandfather's sacrifice and happy to finally know of his contribution during perhaps the most critical period in American history.
"He left a legacy behind him," Cain said. "I'm happy that I can share his story. And I hope it will create enough interest so that others who have stories in their own families will go to work and search out the details."