MARIETTA, Pa. - Catherine Tucker was always proud that black veterans of the Civil War were buried beside the little church where she has spent Sundays since she was a girl in the 1930s.

Historical records showed that 20 Civil War soldiers, most of whom had joined the Union Army to help liberate Southern slaves, lay in the half-acre burial plot at Bethel A.M.E. Church, on a small bluff above the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County.

But Tucker, who helps tend the cemetery, could find headstones for only 13 of the men, several of whom were members of the 32d Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, organized in Philadelphia in 1864. Seven had no marker at all; their stones either had crumbled or been stolen.

"I just felt it wasn't right," Tucker said. "I felt they all deserved a tombstone."

So she set out to fix it.

Today, on Memorial Day, the town of Marietta (population: 2,600) will turn out to honor all of the community's war dead - and especially to commemorate the laying of new granite headstones to mark the lost graves.

It wouldn't have happened without Tucker - with the help of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a local patriotic group.

"Anybody could have done it," she said, "but nobody did. I just feel an obligation to them. I feel a connection to all of the people in the cemetery. . . . After you live in a little town for 70 years, you know people."

A retired federal employee who at different times worked for the Army, Air Force, and Social Security Administration, Tucker comes from what she calls "a military family."

Her father, Albert Smith, was wounded in a poison-gas attack on the Western Front in France during World War I. She remembers him telling her that, once, to stay alive, he had eaten food from the pack of a dead German soldier.

An amateur historian, who had a grocery bag full of new books in her home on Thursday, Tucker spent two years researching the history of the Bethel cemetery. Besides the Civil War soldiers, it includes four black veterans of World War I, seven of World War II, and five of the Korean War.

One of the existing Civil War headstones is for a man who fought in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, an all-black unit that was depicted in the 1989 movie Glory.

While doing her research, Tucker learned that the VA, at no cost, would provide a headstone for any honorably discharged veteran in the nation's history - or replace a stone that had eroded or become lost. She thought her Civil War veterans might qualify.

She had the names of the seven men with lost gravestones - Pvt. Joseph Maze, Pvt. John Knight, Pvt. Andrew McCurdy, Pvt. Asa M. Springs, Pvt. Isaac Thompson, Pvt. Zachariah White and Musician Glenalvin Walker - and she carefully compiled each man's service record to present to the VA.

Maze, born a slave in the South, was drawn into the Confederate Army as a wagon driver. According to a 1931 article in the Lancaster Sunday News, he was at the surrender of Confederate troops at Appomattox, Va., and later drove Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on a tour of Marietta.

On April 29, a flatbed truck showed up in Marietta, carrying six of the government-issue stones, each 42 inches long, 13 inches wide and four inches thick, and each weighing 230 pounds. On May 9, a truck bearing the seventh stone arrived.

The local chapter of the Sons of Legionnaires helped Tucker place the markers, 18 inches deep, in a semicircle around the cemetery flagpole. That seemed the best spot, given that actual grave locations were unknown.

"It means a lot to our town," said Rick Thomas, who led work on behalf of the Sons of Legionnaires. "To remember these men - that is what Memorial Day is all about."

Marietta was a foundry town in the 1860s. The area in which the church and cemetery are situated looks as though it might be a lost section of an Old South river city. A handsome old mansion sits amid tall shrubs across from the church, which is small but sturdy, made of pale, sun-drenched brick, with a bell on top. The cornerstone says "1861" but notes that the church was rebuilt in 1969.

Tucker, who at 76 is the oldest of 16 members, put fresh plastic flowers on the veterans' graves for Memorial Day.

She said she would have preferred to use real flowers, "but the bunnies eat them."

She has been around the neighborhood so long, she said, "that I even know the dogs' names."

Today, around 12:30 p.m., at the conclusion of the Marietta Memorial Day parade, the community will hold a ceremony at the Bethel graveyard to officially mark the laying of the new headstones. American Legion Post 466 and a Boy Scout fife-and-drum crops will provide a military flourish for the event.

Said Tucker: "I just feel like everybody deserved a headstone."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.