On a little hill overlooking the Cumberland Mountains, weeds and brush are being cleared from a neglected family cemetery, revealing a tall sentry-like beech tree and a forgotten past.
Carved in the trunk are "Boothill" and 52 slash marks -- one cut for each of the sunken graves surrounding it. Some are marked by jagged field stones, others not. Who is entombed here?
"I was afraid that during my lifetime I would never know," said Alice Coker, 88, a retired public health worker who has been tracking the mystery for half a century.
Descendants have recently provided the answer. These were Civil War soldiers, members of the 58th Regiment Infantry North Carolina from just over the Great Smoky Mountains in Wautauga and surrounding counties.
Most were farmers, ages 19 to 44. They died months after enlisting not from combat but from "brain fever," measles and other diseases while encamped here during the harsh winter of 1862-63.
In the 1940s, Bob Delap, a member of the family that owned the small Delap Cemetery next to these neglected graves, told Coker that he was told as a boy they were Civil War soldiers. But Delap, who maintained the cemetery and the story, died in 1953.
With him, the story was lost and the cemetery fell into neglect, despite the burial of two Vietnam veterans there as late as 1988.
"I am not [a Civil War buff], but I am a curious person," Coker said. "But I couldn't find any local people who knew anything about it. It bothered me all these years."
That changed in late 2002 when Leta Cornett and her husband, Blaine, from Vilas, N.C., walked into the Campbell County Historical Society.
Cornett had been searching for the final resting place for her great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Dudley Glenn, for 15 years. All available records pointed to LaFollette, which was Big Creek Gap in 1862, and nearby Jacksboro.
She told the woman staffing the society office she was looking for Confederate kin in a Civil War cemetery. Maybe it was because this was pro-Union territory during the war or simply so long ago, but the woman told Leta she was wrong.
"She just didn't much like the idea that I insisted. To be quite honest, she was a little rude," Cornett said, laughing. Then the woman remembered Coker.
"So she called her and I heard her go, 'Uh-huhhh, uh-huhhh.' And I looked at my husband and said, 'She found it!' " Cornett said.
The Blaines drove immediately to Coker's house. Coker threw open the door in welcome, and then they went to the cemetery.
"It was grown up. It was hard to get through the briars," Cornett recalled. But she was happy. "Ecstatic. I just can't hardly comprehend it," she said.
Since then, Glennis Monday, the environmental officer for the Campbell County sheriff's office, has been regularly leading teams of prisoners up the hill to clean up the cemetery.
They've hauled away 80 truckloads of brush and burned possibly 80 more from an area just under an acre. "When I first came up here, I couldn't find it," Monday said. "You wouldn't have been able to turn in any direction without hitting a tree."
It is a far cry from manicured yet, but the cemetery's past is now coming into view. The beech tree strikingly stands guard over the sunken plots.
The society hopes to create a nonprofit foundation to hold title to the property and raise money for a fenced and gated enclosure, its own entrance road and maintenance.
As many as 57 soldiers were buried here, according to Cornett's records. And the society intends to install a grave marker for each one.
"I think these men should be recognized," Coker said. "They were soldiers and died during the war. I think they deserve at least to be recognized and have it known where they are buried."