ECW welcomes back guest author Richard Heisler
Researching history always has a way of taking you down paths you were not anticipating. Acquiring headstones for unmarked Civil War graves was not something I had set out to do when I began Seattle’s Civil War Legacy. There are plenty of people who do that and do it well. I wasn’t particularly interested in it, to be honest. However, as the saying goes, expect the unexpected. Ironically, acquiring a headstone for a Seattle Civil War veteran is precisely what I soon found myself engaged in.
When I was first preparing to publicly launch Seattle’s Civil War Legacy in 2020 I spent a great deal of time browsing the city’s cemeteries in order to familiarize myself with the actual burial locations of the veterans I was to be writing and creating videos about. One afternoon in historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, I had a list of a couple dozen veterans’ resting places I wanted to visit and photograph. Among them was an officer of the Iron Brigade, a 7th Wisconsin veteran by the name of John Marshall Hoyt. His wartime image is a familiar one to many students of the Civil War and well known among Iron Brigade enthusiasts. That afternoon was occupied traversing the cemetery, finding and photographing the dozens of others on my list, but somehow I just couldn’t locate Captain Hoyt. He was listed on the findagrave.com website and other databases. He was an officer of the Iron Brigade, for crying out loud. Surely I was just missing it? I was puzzled. After a consultation with the cemetery staff and a look through their database, we confirmed his exact location in the cemetery. He was indeed there, buried beside his wife Mary. Map in hand, I walked back out to the location and it was apparent why I hadn’t been able to spot his grave marker…there wasn’t one.
“Impossible,” I thought. How could this twice wounded veteran Captain of the Iron Brigade, whose portrait is among the best known among the men of that brigade, be buried anonymously in a far corner of an old Seattle cemetery? I couldn’t help but imagine that Captain Hoyt must be the only officer of the Iron Brigade yet in an unmarked grave, save someone who fell on a battlefield. It all seemed quite unthinkable to me.
That evening I posted about it on the SCWL Facebook page and soon received a few responses. People who are active in acquiring Civil War veteran headstones offered to get involved. After consulting with a few of them about the process and talking to the cemetery I decided not pass this off to someone from elsewhere. I decided to take on the task of applying for a headstone for him through the Veterans’ Administration myself. He had laid anonymously in that forgotten Seattle grave for almost 100 years to this point, it was time to see it through.
The process began by accumulating the correct documentation to prove his identity as a veteran and also prove his date/place of death and burial. On account of pandemic closures, acquiring his compiled service records from the national archives wasn’t possible. I received generous help from the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin to get his state service records, which proved to be sufficient. With the documentation assembled, the next step was contacting the cemetery again to find out about their end of the procedure. At this point I hit the first speed bump in the process. Mount Pleasant Cemetery is a privately owned, permanent care endowment cemetery. There are significant fees required for the permanent care and the headstone installation. Those fees were above what my out of pocket personal budget will allow for. I was confident, however, that the Civil War history community would help support a project like getting a marker for the grave of Captain Hoyt. The next task was to attempt some fundraising. I established a Gofundme page and started spreading that around Facebook and out to the Civil War history community. There was some generous support early on but after the first few donations things stalled out and it became quickly apparent that acquiring the entire amount of the funding was going to be a challenge. This definitely dampened my spirits a bit. After two weeks of fundraising efforts we had only come up with about 10% of what was going to be required.
An unexpected email arrived one afternoon from an individual with the Milwaukee Civil War Round Table. They had heard about my fundraising campaign and wanted to get involved. After a phone conversation discussing the amount of funding that still needed to be raised, the Round Table very generously agreed to donate funds to cover the remaining balance to see that Captain Hoyt received his proper headstone. The cemetery fees were covered and the project was now back on track. It was time to submit the application to the veterans administration.
Several weeks later I received a response from the Veterans Administration. Their decision on Captain Hoyt’s application was a denial. I was shocked. I’d now slammed headlong into speed bump number two. The denial was based on a single line on his death certificate. This is where it starts to get very confusing. Bear with me.
Captain Hoyt died in November 1923 and was originally buried in Seattle’s Grand Army of the Republic cemetery. Four months later, after the death of his wife, he was moved across the city to Mount Pleasant Cemetery to be reinterred into a plot that their son had bought for the two of them. The difficulty for the Veterans Administration came in the fact that his death certificate said that he had been buried in “Lake View” cemetery. He was actually in the G.A.R. cemetery but at that time care and operation of that cemetery was contracted by the Grand Army to Lake View cemetery. The two cemeteries are located side by side. Through the first couple decades of the G.A.R. cemetery’s existence, it was somewhat common for the names “G.A.R.” and “Lake View” to be interchangeable on some documents. People familiar with the complicated history of the G.A.R. cemetery would understand that, but the staff at the Veterans’ Administration didn’t and they weren’t going to simply take my word for it. They only go by what the records state. As far as the VA saw it, Captain Hoyt was buried at “Lake View” and they would require concrete evidence that he wasn’t in order to approve a headstone. Even though I had a statement from Mount Pleasant Cemetery saying he was buried there and confirmed on their maps and database, they couldn’t provide period documents of his burial. Even that would be insufficient, however, as the VA needed proof he had actually been removed from the ground in “Lake View”…where he wasn’t buried to start with.
It hardly requires stating that the entire process got very confusing and the end result was now very much in doubt. Perhaps this is why he had gone 97 years without recognition at his gravesite?
Not willing to give up, I pressed forward, electronically communicating with people to try search records amidst pandemic restrictions. People from a variety of libraries, archives and cemeteries across Seattle willingly responded to my inquiries and offered their help. Most ended up finding nothing. Lake View Cemetery was unable to find anything from the period in their records to help. I’d contacted the city’s genealogy libraries for any help or advice. One suggested looking into a survey of several city cemeteries from several decades ago. I was able to track down a copy at the Seattle Public Library and the genealogist there scanned and sent me a copy. In it we found the initials of an “FD” (funeral director) connected with the burial of JM Hoyt at Mt Pleasant. Looking further into city directories we confirmed the initials with the name of the funeral director in the year Hoyt was removed to Mount Pleasant. Progress! Armed with some more specific information, a reexamination of the Lake View records by their staff turned up, tucked away at the very bottom of a page, a disinterment listing in their record book confirming Captain Hoyt’s removal. Interestingly, this was at the end of Lake View’s period as caretakers of the Grand Army cemetery and was among the very last things in their records regarding the GAR plot. Through the assistance and gracious help of many, we found period documentation of both his burial in Mount Pleasant and more importantly his removal from his initial place of burial. The Veterans’ Administration was satisfied with what I’d provided and the headstone application was approved.
Earlier this year, the headstone for Captain John Marshall Hoyt, Company K, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, was installed. His grave site, beside his beloved wife Mary, sits on a hillside in a quiet corner of the historic cemetery. From there you can look over the vista to the east from Queen Anne Hill, over Lake Washington and beyond to the snow-capped Cascade Mountain range. In this serene, scenic location in the middle of the ever bustling, modern city of Seattle, Captain John Marshall Hoyt is now permanently recognized for his valorous Civil War service by a grateful city and nation.
I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to everyone who supported and participated in this undertaking and helped see that it was accomplished. Thank you all. It would not have happened without you!