Fallen soldier’s legacy endures for generations

Published: May. 30, 2022 at 11:06 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As the country honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, this Memorial Day brought one woman on a journey to the Bluff City.

While our crew visited the Memphis National Cemetery, we caught up with one woman who spent years tracking down her family history.

Turns out she had two great grandfather’s who fought in the Civil War. One of them is buried here in Memphis.

“This is a real treasure for my family,” said Pamela Mays McDonald.

What started as a desire to learn more about her family history ended up leading Mays McDonald to an unexpected discovery.

“As I’ve been doing the family research, I found out that my fourth great grandfather and my second great grandfather,’ said Mays McDonald. “They were both U.S. colored troops in the U.S. Civil War. One died. One lived.”

Her search led her to find that her fourth great-grandfather, Rias Powell, hailed from Georgia. He enlisted in the 11th New U.S. Colored Troops Regiment in Memphis in January 1864.

In May of that year, he was assigned to the 7th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery as an engineer. Powell died from smallpox just one month later.

“He didn’t die in battle, but he fought for his freedom and what he got by dying,” said Mays McDonald. “It’s ironic, he was able to provide for his family in death in a way that he might not have been able to in life.”

Mays McDonald says because of Powell’s sacrifice, his family received a pension for his service. His son opened a bank account with that money and eventually allowing his grandsons to buy their own property in Arkansas.

Powell’s legacy, made and ending in Memphis, is something Mays McDonald will share with her family for generations.

“I am proud that my formally enslaved, fourth great grandfather was able to fight for freedom, his freedom and the freedom of his family, in that war,” said Mays McDonald. “And even though he died, he left behind things for the family. I feel like I’m here because of what he did.”

Pamela says she plans to share this family history with her family at their upcoming reunion.

8,800 unknown soldiers in Memphis National Cemetery

The Memphis National Cemetery was created in 1867 to honor unidentified soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War.

Multiple sections throughout the cemetery are the final resting places for about 8,800 unknown soldiers.

The Memphis National Cemetery has the second largest number of unknown remains of any national cemetery.

“The unknowns here, those were from camps throughout Memphis,” said Director Thomas Maynard. “There was a large amount of them from Kentucky down to Arkansas, along the Mississippi river, from Ellington and Fort Pillow. That’s where these remains eventually came here.”

Maynard says Memorial Day isn’t just a day to honor those who’ve passed. It’s also a day to remember that the freedoms we have now are because of those known and unknown service members who paid the ultimate price.

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