Elation and Frustration: Rescuing Mexican War and Civil War Graves

I established Shrouded Veterans in September 2019 to rescue as many neglected graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans as I possibly could. The idea to start this organization surfaced when I realized how many of these soldiers are buried in unmarked graves or their headstones are indecipherable. It’s quite shocking, actually. Consequently, I decided to do something about this problem one grave at a time.

Unmarked Graves

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will provide a government-furnished veteran headstone free of charge. The person applying for it doesn’t have to be a family member, either. A “personal representative” can fill out the appropriate application (VA Form 40-1330) to request one of these headstones. Once the application is completed, it must be sent to the cemetery where the soldier is buried. The cemetery’s staff will fill out the bottom portion of the application and forward it to the VA. It’s important to reach out to the cemetery before going ahead and requesting a headstone.

I share all of my completed projects on both Facebook and Twitter. I encourage you to follow both.

Sufficient primary source documentation needs to be included with the application or the request will be denied by the VA. The two most important pieces of information to include are proof of the soldier’s military service (pension records, military service records, etc.) and evidence that the individual is buried at the cemetery. (Not from Find A Grave, but burial records, obituaries, etc.) I include as much supporting documentation as I can with each application. It’s better to include too much than not enough. Nothing is more frustrating than receiving a letter in the mail from the VA stating that your request has been denied due to a lack of supporting material. (I speak from experience.)

Isaac C. M. Bassett’s new headstone at Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA.

Last October, I discovered that Brevet Brigadier Isaac Charles Mifflin Bassett was buried in an unmarked grave at Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, Pennsylvania. Bassett served as private in the 1st Pennsylvania Infantry during the Mexican War. During the Civil War, he was appointed a captain in the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry in August 1861. He was promoted to major in February 1863, and colonel three months later. He suffered a wound during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863. During the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Bassett was wounded by a Confederate shell in the left hand which led to the amputation of a finger. He was also wounded by a Confederate ball when it smashed into his elbow joint. The musket ball remained lodged in his arm for several months until it was extracted. Bassett went on to distinguish himself near Petersburg on April 2, 1865, and was cited for conspicuous gallantry at Little Sailor’s Creek four days later. He suffered from his wounds until his untimely death in 1869.

Brevet Brigadier General Isaac C. M. Bassett. (ExcelsiorBrigade.com)

Besides Bassett’s grave, some other projects Shrouded Veterans has completed for Civil War generals with unmarked graves include Brevet Brigadier General George Douglas Wise, the second cousin of Confederate brigadier general and politician Henry A. Wise (Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland); Brevet Brigadier General James Shaw, Jr. (North Burial Ground Providence, Rhode Island); and Brevet Brigadier General Eugene Lee Townsend (North Burial Ground Providence, Rhode Island). Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a new headstone erected over a grave that went unmarked for decades or longer.

Captain James G. Soulard Snelling. (Minnesota Historical Society)

It’s important to remember that while the VA will provide a headstone free of charge, not every cemetery will install it for free. I’m grateful for those cemeteries that will waive the fee, but unfortunately this is only the case for roughly 50 percent of the projects. The cost for installation can run from anywhere between $200 to $350. When I have some extra cash from my freelance writing, I try to cover all or a portion of the expense. But this adds up quickly, especially when I’m working on four or five projects at once. In some cases, I have to put the project on hold until I can raise some or all of the funds to cover this free. This can be quite disheartening.

Snelling’s grave at Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH.

On such instance is the case of Captain Major James G.S. Snelling, the son of the namesake of Fort Snelling, buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. A graduate of West Point with the Class of 1845, Snelling fought in nearly all of the major battles of the Mexican War as a second lieutenant in the 8th Infantry. He was brevetted first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. On September 8, 1847, at Molino del Rey, he was shot through the body and severely wounded. Snelling survived this fearful wound and was brevetted captain for gallant and meritorious conduct. On March 3, 1855, he was made captain in the 10th Infantry. But a little more than five months later, he died from the effects of his Molino del Rey wound at the young age of 33. (A year older than me.) Hardly any trace of Snelling’s original headstone remains. Unfortunately, he will remain unrecognized until I can raise the $265 installation fee charged by the cemetery (or cover the expense myself).

Replacement Headstones

The VA will provide a replacement headstone if the preexisting government-furnished veteran tombstone is in poor condition. I avoid requesting a replacement headstone unless the stone is badly worn or broken.

Cyrus J. Ward’s grave at River View Cemetery in Portland, OR (before).

I tripped on First Lieutenant Cyrus J. Ward’s headstone when visiting River View Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, last August. I was admiring George E. Pickett’s son’s grave when I backed up on it. To my horror, Ward’s headstone was pressed into the earth and in rough shape. I was astonished to find out that Ward was born in Summit County, Ohio, in the adjacent county where I was raised. I took this as a sign. Fortunately, the cemetery didn’t charge an installation fee so I was able to have his headstone replaced with a new one for free. The only cost I incurred was the time it took to gather the appropriate documentation and fill out the VA’s Form 40-1330. I wish all my projects were this straightforward and simple. The truth is that most aren’t.

Ward’s grave at River View Cemetery in Portland, OR (after).

Likewise, Colonel William Davis is buried at Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He served with distinction in the hard-fighting 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, which played a critical role in repelling Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. In 1865, Davis was selected as one of the officers to serve as the Guard of Honor over President Abraham Lincoln’s remains while on display in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before heading to Springfield, Illinois. Davis’ veteran headstone is in horrible condition. Fortunately, the 69th PA History Committee has already agreed to cover the $265 installation fee charged by the cemetery. A replacement headstone will be placed in the coming months.

William Davis’ headstone at Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA. (Find A Grave)

Memorial Headstones

A word of warning: Government-furnished memorial headstones are the most challenging stones to request. A personal representative may request one if the soldier’s remains haven’t been recovered or identified, were buried at sea, were donated to science, or were cremated and scattered. A caveat is that a descendant must provide written approval. It can be quite challenging to track down the descendants of someone who died over 100 years ago. Also, not every descendant is enthusiastic to sign a document giving me consent to do this. To further complicate the process, the VA’s eligibly requirements for memorial headstones are quite vague.

Matilda Osterhaus’ grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO. (Find A Grave)

Requesting a memorial headstone for Major General Peter J. Osterhaus has been one of my most challenging, but fulfilling, projects. “The Lafayette of the Civil War,” returned to Germany after the war, receiving a pension of $30 a month, a result of the “malarial poisoning and gunshot wound of the left thigh incurred during his military service.” He died at the age of 93 in 1917 during the First World War. Osterhaus was interred in a crypt at the Coblenz Christian Cemetery, Germany, but a hill receded and destroyed any trace of it in during the 1970s. After some back-and-forth with the VA, I received word as I was writing this post that a memorial headstone will be sent to Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, and placed next to Osterhaus’ first wife’s grave. Mary B. Townsend, the author of Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus (2010) and Osterhaus’ great-great-grandfather, kindly gave me the approval to proceed with this request. We will be planning a memorial ceremony at Bellefontaine to honor Osterhaus once the headstone has been installed.

Brigadier General William Gamble seat at the center. (Library of Congress)

Brigadier General William Gamble is best known for his role commanding one of General John Buford’s brigades during the Battle of Gettysburg. (He was wonderfully portrayed by Buck Taylor in the 1995 film “Gettysburg.”) But the year before, the Irishman was seriously wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill when a bullet passed through his chest, ricocheted off a rib, and lodged in his back. He survived the war, only to die on December 20, 1866, during a cholera epidemic on his way to California. He was buried in Nicaragua in a now-defunct cemetery. Gamble lived in Evanston, Illinois, and worked as an engineer in Chicago before the war. I’ve requested a memorial headstone to be placed at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery about an hour from his hometown. The request for a memorial headstone has passed the VA’s rigid approval process and should be installed in the forthcoming months.

Brevet Brigadier General Robert Mayhew West and his daughter. (Library of Congress)

Projects don’t always have favorable outcomes like Osterhaus’ and Gamble’s requests did. Brevet Brigadier General Robert Mayhew West commanded a cavalry brigade in the Army of the James during the Civil War and fought with distinction at the Battle of Five Forks. In September 1869, he died from “chronic affection of the bowels” at the home of a citizen living near Fort Arbuckle six months after resigning from the army. He was likely buried at the post’s defunct cemetery. Despite feuding with Lt. Colonel George A. Custer of the 7th Cavalry before resigning, the regiment’s commander had favorable things to say about West in a letter addressed to his son in December 1875. “I regarded him as one of the most efficient officers I had,” Custer wrote, “and I had frequent occasion to rely upon his superior judgment and extended experience.” Philip Sheridan and August V. Kautz praised West as well. Unfortunately, I have been unable to track down any of West’s descendants in order to request a memorial headstone for him to be installed at the Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Oklahoma. To my disappointment, I had no choice but to place this project on hold for now.

We Owe It To Them

I don’t consider a project “complete” until the headstone has been placed and I have photographic evidence to verify it. Sometimes these projects take months or longer to complete. In some cases, I’m waiting for a response or update from a cemetery or the VA for weeks. In other instances, I’m waiting for the headstone to be shipped by the VA, which can take up to six months. There are a number of factors that can contribute to slowing the down the process or thwarting a request. The point is that requesting a veteran headstone can be quite frustrating and take a good deal of time to complete.

Me with Brevet Brigadier General Charles Henry De Groat’s cleaned headstone at Rienzi Cemetery in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

If you find yourself facing similar obstacles, the important thing to remember is to be persistent and don’t give up. When I become discouraged with a project, I think about the sacrifices these soldiers made for us. This invigorates me to find a solution to any problem or obstacle I may encounter when it comes to honoring these soldiers. No American soldier should go unrecognized. We owe it to them to make sure they are memorialized in perpetuity.

8 Responses to Elation and Frustration: Rescuing Mexican War and Civil War Graves

  1. Thanks for your work. I volunteer at an historic cemetery doing preservation, restoration and research. I’ve successfully ordered one military stone (Spanish-American vet).

  2. I would love to come to ceremony for peter osterhaus. I live in St. Louis. Will you post some why when that will happen? Thank you for what you are doing for our vets!

  3. Hello Frank. I have tracked Edward F. Alexander of the Harvar 20th Civil War regiment in hopes of moving him from MIA to a memorial. My search is documented at this site https://www.walkbostonhistory.com/edward-f-alexander-of-the-harvard-20th-civil-war-regiment.html. He died at the Fredericks General Hospital 119 days after being wounded at Antietam and declared MIA.

    If you have a moment, could you review our link above? We can’t nail down his actual burial site, although it is likely at the Frederick General Hospital.

    Since writing the article we visited the Museum of Civil War Medicine and all the main cemeteries in Fredericks. Docents and curators have also searched for Alexander.

    Maybe your review can point us in the right direction.

    Best regards

    Mitch Lapin

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