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Sons of Confederate Veterans salvage cemetery from ruin

:Larry Cornwell, front right, did much of the work to repair this rock wall surrounding the cemetery. Portions of the wall had been knocked down and buried. Also pictured are Underwod and New.

:Larry Cornwell, front right, did much of the work to repair this rock wall surrounding the cemetery. Portions of the wall had been knocked down and buried. Also pictured are Underwod and New.

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This is what the Middlebrooks cemetery looked like before Camp Joe Wheeler took charge. - Special Photo

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@Photo CUTLINE:J.H. Underwood, Larry Cornwell and Jerry New of the Conyers Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter stand at the headstone of Zere Pendergrass Middlebrooks, who died in 1862 of congestive chills while guarding a railroad bridge during the Civil War. According to research conducted by a Sons of Confederate Veterans Member, his widow received $93.56 in accumulated pay upon his death. This was one of the headstones that was broken and repaired by the men. _ Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

COVINGTON -- The first time Debbie Autry saw the historic family cemetery, she was about 10. It was in such a decrepit state, "I just remember thinking we ought to do something about this," Autry said.

Autry's late mother, Peggy, was born in Porterdale but grew up in Macon. Autry lives in Calhoun. Autry's grandparents maintained a home on the Middlebrooks plantation, but after they died their home was sold, and the family lost its immediate connection to the area. Autry and her mother still made an annual drive, and over the years,the cemetery showed more and more ruin.

"It was way more of an undertaking than a couple of school teachers could do," Autry said. Besides, "Mama and I were too afraid there might be critters crawling around in there."

The remains of Autry's great-great, great-great-great and great-great-great-great grandparents are buried there, along with other family members.

Autry said she always worried the cemetery would wind up under a highway. Then she learned that Sons of Confederate Veterans camps take on cemetery clean-up projects where Confederate soldiers are buried.

There are two buried at Middlebrooks cemetery: Autry's great-great-great grandfather, 2nd Sgt. Zere Pendergrass Middlebrooks, who died in 1862 and his brother-in-law, Private James Christian, who died in 1864.

Major General Joseph Wheeler Camp No. 863 in Conyers agreed to try to save the cemetery, having no idea the project would last more than two years or what they'd uncover: More than 100 graves, 90-plus unmarked, believed to be slaves and their descendants, and the surprising discovery of cremains.

"I don't think anybody had any idea how big it was," Autry said.

But the uncovering took quite an effort.

"It was a jungle," said Jerry New, 2nd Lt. Commander of the camp. It took about 15 work parties, ranging in size from about five to 10 people, to clear the overgrowth and downed trees. The men repaired headstones that were broken and rebuilt a rock wall that had been knocked down. They unearthed large rocks that once formed an entryway and reconstructed that. They did all of this for free.

"Truly it was almost gone forever," said Commander J.H. Underwood.

But members of the Joseph Wheeler Camp didn't stop with the clean-up.

In June 2011, they held a memorial service to honor the Confederate soldiers buried there. Camp Genealogist Gene Wade researched records to create biographies on both men that were read at the service. Their research is maintained on the camp's website, campjoewheeler.org.

They even raised $1,800 to hire Len Strozier with Omega Mapping Services to locate the unmarked graves earlier this year. Their next project is to create markers for all unmarked graves. They'll also maintain the cemetery, again, for free.

"It's in good shape now and we'll not let it get back where it was," Underwood said.

This isn't their first cemetery project. Camp members are also clearing up the Meadors cemetery at County Road 213 and Ga. Hwy. 36, where three Confederate soldiers are buried. They've already cleared hundreds of pine trees. They also maintain the Scott cemetery at Kinnett and Brown Bridge roads and the Confederate cemetery behind Oxford College. They mostly work in Newton County because Rockdale County wasn't formed until after the Civil War.

For them, it's a way to achieve their mission of preserving the history of the Confederacy and the legacy of their ancestors. All can trace their ancestry to Revolutionary times.

"These people were neighbors of my family that lived across the river," said Underwood, speaking of those buried at the Middlebrooks cemetery. "I know that my family over there knew this family over here. That's kind of what we're doing this for is to honor our ancestors."

Underwood said the camp will take on cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried if they are in danger of "being lost forever" without intervention.

"I can't say we can do it for all of them ... because there's just too many of them," he said.

The 36-member camp is accepting new members. All meetings are open to the public. Meetings are held at 7:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month at Philologia Masonic Lodge at 1005 Milstead Ave in Conyers.

Membership is open to male descendants of any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces.