Now THAT’s a proper thank you!
A thank you to my great-grandfather William P. Donar, brave veteran of multiple Civil War battles whose grave went unmarked for 113 years.
Until last month, that is.
It all started last fall when I came across a past issue of Family Chronicle Magazine (January/February 2011), which featured a story on how to obtain a grave marker from the federal government for a veteran who has no headstone. The author, Jean Wilcox Hibben, went into great detail on how she went about honoring her ancestor with a grave marker courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs. She also explained how she arranged for a ceremony, complete with music and appropriately attired flag bearers, courtesy of her local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) after the stone was installed by the cemetery.
I’d already discovered through sources online that two of my great-grandfathers, William Donar and Edward Kennedy, had served in the Civil War. It wouldn’t be until a few weeks later though, that I’d confirm those facts during a trip to the National Archives in Washington D.C.
I’d even found William’s burial place in an old Catholic cemetery on the north side of Chicago. Admittedly, his plot in Section P, Block 53, Lot 60, wasn’t so easy to locate. In fact, when I finally figured out where it was, I was quite disheartened to see that there was no marker there in the ground acknowledging his 73 years on earth—merely grass and blowing leaves in a virtual potter’s field.
Inspired by Hibben’s success, I decided to apply for a marker myself in the name of this great-grandfather who served with the Union Army in 1862, one of the bloodiest years of the war.
I do know a bit about William Donar. I know from family records that he was born in Westmeath, County Westmeath, Ireland, in 1826, and that he married my great-grandmother Margaret Gaynor, in Dublin in 1845. He was 19 and she was 24. When and how they arrived in America is a mystery yet to be solved. At the time he enlisted in Lincoln’s army, William, a tailor by trade, was 36 years old and living at 8 Pine Street in Albany, New York, with Margaret and their two children, John Henry, 11 (b. 1851) and his namesake, William, 6 (b. 1856).
Details of William’s military career were pieced together from his military pension file, which I obtained last year from the National Archives, and a book entitled The Roster of Union Soldiers 1861-1865, which details the histories of units that served in the Civil War. Here is some of what I’ve learned:
William Donar enlisted in Albany, New York, with Captain John Graves’ regiment as a Private in Company C, 25th New York State Infantry. His unit was attached to the 3rd Corps, Army of the Potomac, and participated in the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of Hanover Courthouse where 158 of the 349 men engaged in that battle were killed, wounded, or missing. They fought again at Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill and went on to Newport News, Falmouth, and Manassas where fortunately, they were reported to have suffered “slight loss.”
When William mustered out in September of 1862, he returned to Albany where he took up work once again as a tailor and fathered three more children: Agnes (b. 1861); George (b. 1864); and Peter, my grandfather (b. 1867). With the war behind him, life carried on as William and family moved from New York to Iowa, and then, on to Illinois where he eventually died in 1899.
That’s when he was buried in that remote, unmarked grave at Calvary Cemetery on the north side of Chicago—a patch of ground which, except for a few grass cuttings each season, has likely been ignored since he was laid to rest there over a century ago.
But that wasn’t good enough for me once I learned it didn’t have to be that way anymore. Following the guidelines offered in Hibben’s “how to” article, I printed off an application to the Department of Veterans Affairs, picked up a pen, and started filling that form right out.
Despite the government’s reputation for bureaucratic paperwork and delay, that wasn’t the case for me. The form was fairly simple, and it took less than 10 weeks from the time I submitted my application until delivery of the engraved stone to the cemetery.
There were a few minor glitches to deal with, however.
After visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia last year with its rolling hills carpeted with traditional upright Civil War gravestones, I envisioned how proud I would be to see just such a stone resting upon William’s grave in Calvary. Though I learned the government offered the same stone design to me, the cemetery allowed only flat granite markers in the area where my great-grandfather was buried. Disappointing, for sure, but certainly not a deal breaker.
It also got a bit complicated when I realized that William’s son, William (yes, same name), was buried right above his father, which I feared might jeopardize my ability to obtain a stone at all. Yes, I learned, I could still get the marker at government expense, but sorry, no engraving for his son, my grand-uncle. Oh well, I’d take what I could get.
And at one point, immediately after mailing in the government paperwork—after all my careful and meticulous attention to detail—I realized that I (Yes, I!) had filled the form out with the wrong death date—his son’s! (Arrrghh!). A few anxious phone calls later, the matter was resolved.
In the end though, all was well. All it cost me was a bit of paperwork, some minor frustrations, and a fee to the cemetery for placing the stone in the ground above my great-grandfather’s grave. Added together, a very small price to pay indeed, for a long overdue debt.
So, William can rest now…and, so can I.
You have been honored, sir.
To learn more about obtaining a marker for the veteran in your family who is resting in an unmarked grave, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs. The form you’ll need, VA Form 40-1330, Application for Standard Government Headstone or Marker, as well as the instructions for filling it out, can be found at: http://www.cem.va.gov/hm_hm.asp
Copyright © 2012 Patricia Desmond Biallas