MANCHESTER, Tenn. — A mystery that unfolded more than 1,000 miles from a remote cemetery in Coffee County, has led back to a Confederate soldier who survived the war and returned to farm the pastoral countryside west of Manchester like his father.
Samuel Jiles Elliott married his bride, Mary, on May 26, 1863. But the Civil War raged, and Elliott enlisted in the Confederate Army that same year. He was 21.
Elliott served as a private in Capt. G.W. Robinson's Company E of the Tennessee Volunteers. Then he returned to the land and the woman he loved.
They lived out their lives together until Mary died in 1885 — on her 42nd birthday.
Elliott had her tombstone inscribed with the epitaph, "We shal meet again."
The same words were put on his own tombstone when he died three years later, at age 45.
Those tombstones sat side by side on the couple's graves for well over a century under the sprawling boughs of a massive cedar tree in Old Redden's Cemetery.
Until this year.
The Elliott couple's tombstones were taken from their grave sites sometime over the summer, probably in June or July, Coffee County Sheriff's Office investigator Bill Marcom said recently.
Inexplicably, Samuel's tombstone was found in August, 1,120 miles away in Spearfish, S.D., a town of 11,000 or so in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. The tombstone — and two foot stones from a grave site about 100 feet from the Elliotts' final resting place — was found in an alleyway off of State Street following the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the neighboring town, Spearfish officials say.
Karla Weber, the cemetery sexton at city-owned Rose Hill Cemetery in Spearfish, said it took just a few minutes to find the cemetery where Samuel Elliott's marker had come from once she and Spearfish police joined forces and poked around on the Internet.
After a search of cemetery records in local and nearby communities, the website www.findagrave.com provided a link to a photo and location of the marker within 15 minutes, Weber said.
"We all just stood there and stared at my computer, stunned," she said.
But the mystery wasn't over yet -- Mary's marker was still missing.
Initially, no one even knew that the Elliotts' grave markers had been taken.
Ronald England, one of two caretakers at the Old Redden's Cemetery in Coffee County, filed a theft report in July, after it was discovered that the two foot stones were missing and that the cemetery's sign had been vandalized.
England, 73, lives a couple miles away from the cemetery on a road named for his family, some of whom are buried at the graveyard he helps tend.
"The secretary (of the cemetery committee) said somebody called her and told her what was missing and she called me, and I went down there and looked at it and didn't even see the others (the Elliotts' tombstones) missing until I went up and reported it to the sheriff's department that we'd had a vandalism," England said.
"At the time the report was made, we didn't even know the headstones were gone," Marcom said. The foot stones were the only missing items noted at the time.
England noted that the theft happened as the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival was concluding.
"It's such a secluded place that you have so many people go out there and drink and make love and whatever they do out there," he said, "and I figured somebody just picked it up and carried it off."
England said he spoke a few weeks later with the sheriff's office and was told of the tombstone's discovery 1,100 miles away, a baffling distance to haul such a thing.
"It just makes one wonder. What an odd thing to steal — it's just odd," Coffee County Historical Society member Beverly Vetter said as she listened to discussion about the missing markers.
Spearfish authorities set about returning Samuel Elliott's marker to Manchester.
Marcom said Spearfish police insured the marker and foot stones and returned them via the U.S. Postal Service. But the headstone arrived in Manchester in August in two pieces and the postal service said the insurance wouldn't cover the loss, he said.
Marcom said he's going to repair and reinstall the marker himself over the winter.
Now, officials in Manchester as well as Spearfish hope to see Mary Elliott's headstone returned to its rightful place beside her husband's.
Weber said she hopes that whoever took Samuel Elliott's marker will take Mary Elliott's marker back to Coffee County.
"I know Mrs. Elliott's has to be somewhere between here and there," she said.
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com