Laying a mystery to rest

Soldier: Descendants of a Union soldier found his unmarked grave after a long search. Yesterday, they paid their respects at his new tombstone.

October 31, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

For Susan Carl, the mystery of the missing soldier began 20 years ago with a single clue -- a yellowed newspaper obituary from October 1862, pasted into a family Bible.

It ended yesterday in a sea of white tombstones on a grassy hill in the sun, where Carl and her cousin, Elaine Wescott, paid last respects to the fallen Union infantryman they'd finally tracked down.

He was their great-great-great uncle, William Henry Burns, and he'd died of a leg wound suffered on the bloodiest day of the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam. His body then disappeared into an unmarked grave for 137 years, and he might well have lain undiscovered forever if not for a little luck, a lot of help, and plenty of determination from Carl and Wescott.

Searching old military records and gravesites with the guidance of friend and historian Frederick C. "Butch" Maisel III, they traced the body to its sloping green plot in Baltimore Cemetery, tucked at the east end of North Avenue. In doing so, they established ties to their family's past strong enough to bring tears to their eyes and a catch to their voices during a brief memorial ceremony yesterday morning.

"I tell you, I've never had such a feeling of connection in my life," Wescott, 64, recalled of the moment last year when she first stood before Burns' unmarked grave, as well as the unmarked grave of his mother, Sarah Burns, Wescott's great-great-great-great grandmother. "I was thinking to myself, I wonder if they know I'm here. It was beautiful, sad and wonderful."

Carl, 62, an assistant librarian at Boys' Latin School, grew curious about her family's past in late 1978, shortly after her mother died. Sorting through memorabilia, she realized she knew little about her forebears, so she asked a relative to track down the family Bible. Dated 1829, it had first belonged to Sarah Burns, the soldier's mother. It was loaded with curiosities such as church attendance "tickets," but the most intriguing item was a small obituary pasted in the upper left corner inside the front cover. It was the death notice of William Henry Burns, accompanied by a short poem -- a common practice in obituaries of that era -- presumably offered by a grieving widow.

Carl thought about the item off and on for 16 years, wondering what the soldier's full story might be. But not until four years ago did she and Wescott pursue it. Carl approached Maisel, who teaches history at Boys' Latin and had successfully completed many similar searches during the past 30 years.

He directed them first to the book with the records of the Maryland Volunteers, where they found that Burns had been a private in E Company of the 5th Maryland Infantry Regiment.

The next stop was the National Archives, where, in slow but steady progression, they dug out his military record, his pension papers and his casualty report.

Soldier's history

The emerging time line looked like this: Born 1817 in Scotland, with most of his family in Baltimore by the late 1840s. Member of the Methodist-Episcopal Church of Emory Station. Became a bricklayer, then married at age 39 to Mary Whorton, 19, a milliner, on Aug. 19, 1856. Residence at 331 Saratoga St. Mustered into the army Oct. 1, 1861, six months after Fort Sumter and six weeks after his fifth wedding anniversary.

On Sept. 17, 1862, he was part of the federal army that attacked the Confederate forces of Robert E. Lee. Based on battle maps, he was apparently involved in the attack on the Sunken Road, a portion of the enemy line so filled with corpses that it became known as Bloody Lane.

Burns was shot in the leg on a day when 23,000 were killed and wounded. With medical help slow in coming and often unsanitary when it did, such wounds were often fatal.

Nine days later he was admitted to Mount Pleasant General Hospital in Washington, and four weeks after that he died. It seems likely that someone visited him, or knew he was there, because his obituary ran in The Sun three days later.

`Sure, he's here'

But records contained no reference to where Burns was buried, and the trail went cold. Wescott began checking area cemeteries where veterans are buried, and one afternoon she visited the large federal graveyard in Catonsville. Not here, an employee told her. But he had a hunch: Try Baltimore Cemetery on East North Avenue. She telephoned, and a man flipped through a book before answering matter-of-factly, "Sure, he's here."

Wescott drove as fast as she could, and was directed to Lot 33 in Area M, where nothing but a slight bulge in the sloping ground said that this, at last, was the place. She telephoned Carl "and we just danced a jig over the phone," Carl said. Carl called Maisel, saying, "Butch, we finally found our Civil War soldier. But I am so dismayed, there is no monument and no marker."

That set other wheels in motion, with the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War getting involved. With reams of documentation in hand, Carl persuaded the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for a tombstone.

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