More Than a Century Later, Civil War Veteran is Honored at Last

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.

GeneaJourneys blogger, Pat Biallas, at the grave of her great-grandfather William P. Donar who served in the Union Army. The certificate at left is from the National Society Daughters of the Union, which Pat and her daughters, Meghan and Kelly Biallas, joined after learning their ancestor was a  Civil War veteran.

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.

Calvary Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

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, Arlington: rows of gravesI 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.

Thank you.


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: 

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Biographies, Cemeteries, Civil War, Ireland, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to More Than a Century Later, Civil War Veteran is Honored at Last

  1. Lorene says:

    Quite an accomplishment, Pat. Just in time for Veterans Day, too! Enjoyed your write up about your grandfather.

  2. Mark Biallas says:

    I really love this post Patti, I tear up each time I read it. What a great tribute!

    • Mark, you’ve been part of this journey from the time we found William Donar listed on, to the day we spent perusing and copying his pension file at the National Archives in D.C., to the trips we made to Calvary to find, mark and display his grave. He’s as much your great-grandfather as he is mine. Thank you for not only supporting my passion for family history, but for enthusiastically participating in it every step of the way. You are a treasure. P.

  3. Jana Last says:

    Wow! I just love this! What a wonderful way to honor your great-grandfather.

  4. Diane M. Desmond says:

    You have been dogged in your pursuit of our family history—and we are the beneficiaries. Maybe the Civil War will take on a little more meaning when our children and grandchildren know that they had a special relative take part in that war. Thanks for the information.

  5. Debi Austen says:

    I remember you commenting on my blog post from last Veteran’s Day after I’d obtained a marker for my 3rd great grandfather, Emery L. Waller. Without a doubt, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’m so glad you were able to make this happen, especially in time for Veteran’s Day. Here’s a link to my post to help refresh your memory.

    • I do remember, Debi. I also remember you offering tips/advice in pursuit of obtaining this marker should I need any. And you’re also absolutely right about how rewarding it is to be able to do something like this for an ancestor. It wasn’t difficult and wasn’t even too time consuming. After all they did in service to our country, it truly is the least we could do in their honor. Thanks so much for finding this post and following up with me. So fun to know of someone else who took the steps necessary to honor a true American hero.

  6. Pat, How fun to see that my article had such an influence! And I had to laugh about your error in filling the paperwork out with the wrong death date. When I filled it out, I put myself down as the Deceased! Thankfully, an astute cemetery sexton caught it and suggested an alteration in the name or I might be quite surprised to find my own moniker on the headstone. Like you, it took just a little tweaking and all went through perfectly. I love learning that these veterans are being properly recognized. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Thanks, Jean. You truly were my inspiration,as I didn’t know about this veteran’s benefit ’til I read your article in Family Chronicle. So glad I picked that issue up! I’m also glad that despite the initial flub on your paperwork, you didn’t have to look at your own name on that gravestone due to the diligence of the cemetery sexton!

  7. You went to a lot of trouble and work to install a proper grave marker for your great-grandfather. Not only is that action extremely kind of you, what with dealing with government forms and cemetery protocol, but also you filled out the picture of his life very well with your genealogical expertise. You tell us about his children, his occupation, his moves from place to place, and especially his service in the Union Army. I wish he could have imagined this future honor and favor when he signed up for military service. Without those like your great-grandfather, the Union could have split in two. Perish the thought.

    • Oh, and there’s more actually, Mariann! After learning about him and another G-Gpa serving in the Civil War (see earlier post: I joined the National Society Daughters of the Union (NSDU) and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War (DUVCW). Just learned that my NSDU chapter will be conducting a memorial ceremony in the fall at William Donar’s grave. There will surely be another post from me at that time. Pretty excited to inform my family. I was able to develop a timeline/chronology for him after I got his pension records from the National Archives in D.C. Coupled with Chicago City Directories and census listings I was able to come up with what I did. Sure wish I knew more about his wife, however–very little on her.

Leave a Reply to Patricia Desmond Biallas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s