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Group honors Civil War vets

Sons of the Union Veterans, John T. Crawford Camp 43, has been searching for and finding Civil War grave sites for almost 20 years, and they say their job is just beginning.

More than 3,500 graves of Civil War veterans exist in Armstrong County and, to date, about 2,300 have been identified. A number of those have new memorial gravestone markers.

The job of locating the final resting place of these veterans requires painstaking research and a lot of old-fashioned footwork.

For the past 18 years, Richard Essenwine of Kittanning has been the Camp’s graves registration officer. Essenwine has served as the Camp’s past commander and is the treasurer.

Essenwine said graves of Armstrong County veterans who served in the Civil War are located in more than 200 cemeteries in the county. While some are large, well-known cemeteries, some are almost forgotten area in nearly inaccessible places.

“Some graveyards may be just a few headstones in the middle of a cornfield, or at the edge of a forgotten, overgrown woodlot,” Essenwine said.

One such forgotten site was found several years ago in the Templeton area, known as the Belltown Cemetery.

“We were led to this cemetery by old court records from the 1890s,” Essenwine said. “While its location was roughly identified on old records, we had to do a bit of tramping around and make some door-to-door inquiries to find it. What we discovered was eight graves. We later found that six graves were actually Civil War veterans, one was the resting place of a veteran of the War of 1812, and one was a World War 1 soldier’s grave. All the men buried there were black Americans. At that time, blacks could not be buried in white cemeteries, regardless of their devotion and service to our country.”

On behalf of Camp 43, Essenwine painstakingly gathered as much information about the dead men as he could. To do so meant researching county and Army records and the Internet, as well as trying to read information on 100-year-old-plus stones and photographing the site.

As with all the cases he researches, after has gathered a sufficient amount of the required documentation he applies for new headstones through the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington.

“That in itself is quite a process,” Essenwine said. “There are a lot of forms to fill out and documentation to send along with them. All the information goes to Washington, and from there to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to be checked and verified. From Kansas it goes to a government veterans’ branch in Tennessee and then back to the Veterans Affairs office in Washington. Along the way the application can be denied at any point, usually for inaccurate or conflicting information or to ask for additional confirmation. It takes about 90 days or more to get a headstone or gravemarker.”

He said if there are any surviving family members of the dead veterans, the family has a choice of several types of markers. They may choose a brass plaque, a flat granite marker, a bronze niche that is attached to a gravestone or an upright headstone. All markers include a standard inscription giving the name of the veteran, his regiment, dates of service and dates of birth and death.

“Sometimes we run into problems in this area,” he said. “Old Army records were not accurate and often leave a lot to be desired as far as information is concerned. In a few cases, we learned that the veteran did not receive an honorable discharge or may have been listed as a deserter. In the latter case, we do additional research. Occasionally, we find that a soldier was listed as a deserter when in reality he got separated from his original regiment and joined up with another regiment. But if it turns out the he was discharged under less than honorable conditions or he really did desert, than the request for a gravemarker is denied.

“This is a very tough thing to tell surviving family members, even though it’s been 100 or more years later and they may have never know their ancestor. However, we have rarely run into that problem.”

Essenwine said that from time to time he will receive calls from family members requesting a new headstone for a Civil War veteran. When a call is received, he and several Camp members will do an on-site inspection of the grave. If it has a legible marker, it is not eligible for a new marker. However, if the gravestone is illegible, cracked or broken, the Camp then begins the application process.

“We receive all the stones or markers through Davidson Memorials in Cowansville,” he said. “We pick them up, take them to the grave site and install them at our own expense. The government will not pay for delivery or installation. Sometimes we receive donations from surviving family members, sometimes not.

“Once a stone or marker is set in place, we hold a graveside ceremony to which surviving family members, if any, are invited. Our male Camp members dress in period-correct Union Army uniforms, and we give a 21-gun rifle salute with 1800s era replica muskets, and we play ‘Taps’ on a bugle. Our lady members dress in period-correct dresses and place flowers on the grave. We then place a 33- or 34-star flag on the grave.

“If the veteran served before West Virginia became a state, I believe in 1863 or 1864, he gets a 33-star flag, if he served after that time, he gets a 34-star flag. The flag is folded in the traditional triangle and presented to the oldest living family member present on behalf of the president of the United States. Then the youngest family member is asked to place a current 50-star flag on the grave site symbolizing the gratitude of our nation.”

Why does Essenwine and his fellow Camp 43 members devote so much time and effort to memorializing Civil War veterans• He said that a simple answer to that question is so that the sacrifice of all veterans, including those who fought in the Civil War, will never be forgotten.

Essenwine added that Camp 43’s ambitious effort to locate and mark all Civil war graves is far from over.

“It may take a long time to locate and identify the remaining graves in the county,” he said. “But once we’re reached that goal we’re moving on to research graves in Indiana County, then on to other counties in northwestern Pennsylvania, right up to Erie. There are Sons Camps in Freeport and Pittsburgh, so we hope to have help from them, but we’re not going to rest until the job is done. As more time goes by it gets more difficult to do the necessary documentation, but we’ll do what we can.”

The Sons will dedicate grave markers at the Belltown Cemetery near Templeton at a ceremony to be held at 2 p.m. May 6. The public is invited to the event.

Essenwine may be contacted for more information on Camp 43’s ongoing project, or to give him information about possible grave sites, by calling: 724-664-2424.


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