Like many over the decades, Wyman May relocated to Hinesville because of the Army.
Unlike most, he was here first.
May and his family lived in Taylors Creek, one of about 60 communities on some 279,000 acres in five counties and one of the first villages in the area to have telephone lines.
All that land was either condemned or bought by the federal government in late 1940 to establish Camp Stewart. It meant an estimated 2,000 people had to move, leaving behind homes, stores and churches.
And the places they buried their loved ones.
Out among the sandy tank trails and pine trees and rattlesnakes, there are 64 known cemeteries with approximately 2,800 marked graves on Fort Stewart, according to post archaeologist Brian Greer.
He and his team, including archaeologists Jesse Larson and Ashley Moss, work for the contractor Aerostar with the Army to preserve the burial sites and the history they hold.
“Cemeteries are very important,” Greer said. “One reason is they’re the best visual reminder former residents have of the past. The old communities are no longer there, their homes are no longer there, but the cemeteries are still there.”
And they still draw visitors.
Twice a year, the Army offers guided tours of those cemeteries under the auspices of the Fort Stewart Cemetery Council, which is presided over by the post’s garrison commander. May has been vice president of the group since it was created in 1993 by then-post commander Maj. Gen. Paul Blackwell.
May is also a historian and has written a book on Fort Stewart’s cemeteries.
“I catalogued all the cemeteries on the post,” he said Thursday during the 2017 spring tour of the cemeteries. “Every grave out here, I compiled it in a book and did it on a computer.”
That book, “Fort Stewart Cemeteries,” is available at the library.
There’s also an online database of every grave known to exist on Fort Stewart available through the post’s website.
Most of those who take the tours have ties to the area like May, who left Taylors Creek in 1941 as a boy.
“It had three country stores, a post office, two schools and two churches,” he recalled.
He recalls hearing his grandmother telling how her aunt, his great-grandmother’s sister, rescued furniture that had been taken by Union soldiers from Taylors Creek Methodist church. She was about 12 at the time the soldiers came through, May said.
“When some of Sherman’s troops came through there, they spent the night on Canoochee Creek and took the furniture out of the church and carried it down to the creek,” he said. “When they left the next morning they left the furniture there. She and some of the other girls her age went down to the creek and brought the furniture back and put it back in the church.”
There are 460 marked graves at Taylors Creek. An older burial ground also exists, but the newer cemetery, along with the church sharing its name, was moved in 1841 because it sat to close to the Canoochee River, May said.
The other church in the Taylors Creek community in 1941 when Camp Stewart came along was Pleasant Grove AME.
It still exists, although it too made the trip to Hinesville. Among the church’s current members is Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette, who said he tries never to miss a tour to the cemeteries on post.
For him, too, it’s history.
“My mother was born at Taylors Creek,” he said. “My grandparents and great grandparents are from Taylors Creek, and I have a direct connection to this land, it is near and dear to my heart. All my youthful days, my grandparents and church members would talk about this area. They called it the reservation.”
Lovette said there are a lot of unmarked graves in Pleasant Grove — “in those days money was scarce and not everybody could afford a headstone,” he said – but in 2014, Pleasant Grove AME dedicated a marker to those buried there.
Lovette said he takes the tours to “reconnect” with his heritage. Dr. Patti Newman, a retired educator from Bryan County, also takes the tours. She has ancestors buried in Liberty Chapel Cemetery, one of four cemeteries visited during Thursday’s tour.
Newmans’ family hails from Clyde, once the county seat of Bryan County and still marked in the “Old Clyde Road” exit sign on I-95.
“I come out here to make connections to my ancestors and my past, my history,” she said. “The sense of connection I get to my grandparents and great-grandparents is just so hard to describe in words, other than it’s a connection.”
Among those who aren’t tied to the land by birth or family is retired Army paratrooper Joe Caligiure, who also retired from range control in 2006 but was in charge of the training area, all 270,000 acres of it, when the cemetery council was formed.
He recalls being on that first tour in the mid 1990s, when there were “three or four busloads of people, black and white people who had all lived out there in that community on Taylors Creek.”
“When they got off the buses you should have heard the stories they told, they were one big family,” he said. “You could tell it was a very good community and that they all loved each other. You hear all these horrible stories about the South, but that is not always true. Especially in Liberty County. They all got along with one another.”
Jennifer Flores and her daughter Savannah also took Thursday’s tour, which included stops at Green Bay, Cypress Slash and Trinity cemeteries, according to Dina McKain, a public affairs officer on Fort Stewart who went along on the tour.
Flores, an Army wife, said she took the tour because she loves both cemeteries and local history.
“Anytime I can steep myself in the history of where we were, I try to take the opportunity,” Flores said. “I love learning about this area. And I’ve been visiting cemeteries since I was little. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just a draw to people who lived before me.”
History drew Frank Grimm, his wife Margaret, and Al Perry of the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp in Richmond Hill. They took the tour searching for graves of Confederate veterans buried in the area.
“Fort Stewart graciously provides the opportunity to tour the cemeteries twice a year,” Perry said. “The information gathered and recorded on these tours will be forwarded to a Sons of Confederate Veterans database at the state level and also included at the International headquarters at Elm Springs near Columbia, Tenn.”
It, too, is searchable online.
May said there are still burials for those who have family ties to the cemeteries, and some of the gravestones are recent, such as one from 2002 at Green Bay cemetery.
Most are much older. And one grave site may date back to 1734 at Fort Argyle, while others with markers are from the 1840s.
“A lot of headstones prior to that were wooden markers, and many of those over time have disintegrated,” Greer said.
Still, there’s a sense those times are closer to today than one thinks.
Larson recalled one descendant who helped identify toys and a pair of glasses found at Taylors Creek from a time when he played in the village.
Those memories help archaeologists understand what life was like before the Army.
“They can remember the houses they lived in and when they’d ride bikes down the road,” she said. “And now it’s all trees. They help you remember, or at least imagine, what used to be here.”