Mystery of Cemetery Marker Flags Solved

by

John J. Dunphy

(Originally published in 5/30/20 edition of The Teegraph of Alton, IL)

Many of you will recall my April 25, May 2 and May 9 columns for The Telegraph that dealt with the mystery of small American flags suddenly appearing on the graves of Civil War Union veterans — and even a veteran of the Spanish-American War — at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Godfrey.

I received an e-mail last Saturday from Kerry Miller, a fellow Democrat and fellow alumnus of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Alton. It read: “I was up at the Elsah Cemetery and found several Civil War markers. Put flags on the graves. Have a safe Memorial Day. Caught the Hibernians putting out flags at St. Patrick’s, pointed out what the Civil War markers look like.” This e-mail included five photographs of Elsah Cemetery tombstones with small American flags in front of them.”

This e-mail so astonished me that I replied, with a question, “Were you (and I boldfaced the word “you”)the one who put those flags on the graves at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Godfrey?” Kerry messaged back, “The St. Mary’s chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (those pesky Irish) put the flags out at St. Pat’s and St. Joe’s, but they didn’t know what the Civil War markers looked like, so I pointed a couple out.”

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, founded in New York City in 1836, is a fraternal organization for Catholic men who were ether born in Ireland or trace their ancestors to the Emerald Isle. Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland.

Upon learning that our local Hibernians have been placing flags on these long-neglected graves I immediately thought of Francis McKeon, a Union army veteran who was the subject of my May 9 column. An Upper Alton resident who served in the renowned Company D of the Second Illinois Cavalry, McKeon had been born in Ireland around 1834. In that column, I wrote that “Francis McKeon was one of an estimated 150,000 Irish immigrants who fought for the Union. It’s fitting that he rests in a cemetery named for the patron saint of Ireland.” After reading Kerry’s e-mail, I regarded it as even more fitting that this Irish immigrant’s grave was given a flag by an organization comprised of Americans who proudly claim Irish descent.

The photos of those tombstones in the Elsah Cemetery’ brought home to me the sheer diversity of the Union dead who rest in our region. For instance, Edward Pinney wasn’t in an Illinois unit. His tombstone notes he served as a second lieutenant in Company M of the First Indiana Heavy Artillery. The First Indiana lost a total of 390 men, 323 of whom died from disease.

Another tombstone marked the grave of a soldier whose name I can’t quite decipher. He served in the First Regiment Tennessee Cavalry. Yes — the Confederate state of Tennessee! The Volunteer State was a house divided during the Civil War and provided fighting men for the Union as well as the Confederacy. This proud regiment lost a total of 356 men during its service, 296 of whom perished from disease.

Twice as many Union men during the Civil War died from contagious diseases than enemy musket balls and artillery shells. My May 2 column dealt with the Illinois 144th Infantry, which never left Alton to engage in battle but lost 69 men to disease. One of those men is buried at the Elsah Cemetery. The roster for Company F of the 144th Illinois Infantry notes that Asbury Mott was recruited on Sept 24, 1864 at “Jersey Landing” — an early name for Elsah — and was discharged on Jan. 29, 1865 as a sergeant due to a “disability.” His tombstone, however, states that he died at age 22 on March 24, 1864. Since the 144th wasn’t organized until Oct. 21, 1864, we must assume that the tombstone carver got the year of Mott’s death wrong.

There probably haven’t been flags placed on the graves of these men in over a century. Thank you for honoring their service and sacrifice, Alton Hiberrnians. Erin go Bragh!

John J. Dunphy’s books include Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947 and From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.

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John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.