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Civil War soldiers forgotten no more in Traverse City

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — An unmarked grave of a Civil War soldier remained a mystery for 115 years until John Sawyer put the clues together.

Sawyer researched the grave site of what would be determined as the resting place of Daniel Stamp in Traverse City’s Oakwood Cemetery. Stamp had been a soldier in the Civil War, serving with Company E of the 13th Michigan Infantry. He died in 1902 at age 72.

Scott Schwander says he has cleaned more than 400 graves in the past year.

Sawyer used a combination of burial records, death certificates and obituaries to piece together Stamp's story in 2017 in an effort to recognize the soldier's life by marking the site with a headstone. 

“I always felt an unmarked grave held an unknown person,” said Sawyer, 65, of Traverse City. “By placing these headstones and honoring these soldiers, they will never be forgotten.” 

Sawyer is the graves registration officer with the Robert Finch Camp No. 14 Department of Michigan of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

It's a group that dedicates time and effort memorializing forgotten soldiers who fought in the war between states but later died in relative obscurity around the Traverse City area.

Their work inspired others in the community to rally around the cemetery, repair and restore the grave sites to honor the soldiers earlier this month.

Sawyer had discovered several other unmarked veterans’ graves last year in the cemetery while doing research to find unknown or unmarked graves of Union soldiers. Eventually, Sawyer found enough historical evidence to send to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain 10 headstones.

“There were a lot of reasons for the graves to be unmarked — the families may have been poor; the paperwork was lax," he said. "I think these soldiers were in the asylum — the Traverse City State Hospital — and were buried without ceremony.”

On May 19, Stamp finally was recognized for his service, and a headstone now resides over his final resting place. The graves of the other soldiers were dedicated, too, completing the task of remembering lost soldiers.

“It’s common to dedicate one stone,” Sawyer said. “To have 10 soldiers honored is unusual.”

Sawyer collaborates with Scott Schwander, a 54-year-old Civil War memorials officer with Robert Finch, who can often be found clearing lichens and dirt from veterans’ graves.

“These soldiers died, were forgotten after burial, neglected and abandoned for over a century,” said Schwander of Traverse City.

Their local group is named after Sgt. Robert Finch, who was a Civil War veteran from Grand Rapids who served in Company B of the 1st Regiment of Michigan Sharpshooters. While Finch lost an eye in the war, he was an early advocate of veterans’ rights.

Members of the organization must document their ancestral connections to veterans of the Civil War to become members.

Schwander began cleaning stones at Oakwood Cemetery after discovering his connection to the Civil War through his great-great grandfather, Marcus Foster, an Odawa Indian who served in Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters.

Until recently, the stones there were dirty, the memorial flag holders broken or missing. Much work was to be done as there are 308 Civil War veterans in the 92-acre cemetery.

So Schwander approached welding instructor Devan DePauw at Northwestern Michigan College, who found three students who volunteered their time to repair 51 cast iron holders, some of which dated back to 1863.

Ries Vandergrijn of Traverse City is a first-year welding student at the college, volunteering 30 hours over two months to weld the broken flag holders.

“I wanted to learn how to weld cast iron," said Vandergrijn, 19, who added five or six were repaired each Saturday. "I helped in any way I could.”

There were 69 graves without flag holders so new ones with a modern design were ordered then placed with each headstone. Students and volunteers assisted by cleaning the areas around the graves and placing American flags along the roadways and grave sites for the dedication ceremony.

“The work will continue where ever the need is found,” Schwander said.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.