Civil War veteran reclaimed from anonymity in Lynden Cemetery

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 15, 2012 

LYNDEN - When Kent Holsather of Bellingham learned that unused burial plots in Lynden Cemetery would go up for sale starting next spring, he shifted into research mode.

Holsather had been told by kin that his great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was buried there, but no burial marker and burial paperwork could be found for the Civil War veteran, John H. Smith.

But after digging through old records, with key help from his brother, Tom, Holsather managed to pinpoint where Smith was buried, and convinced Veterans Affairs to send a grave marker designed for Civil War Union veterans.

"I bulldogged it," said Holsather, a retired refinery worker.

The marker was installed two weeks ago, and a dedication ceremony was held at the cemetery Friday, Oct. 12.

Without the Holsathers' diligence, Smith would have remained among the category of unidentified people interred at the cemetery, with no marker to remind future generations of their ancestor.

FAMILY KEEPSAKES

In one sense, the identification of Smith's grave owes a debt to the family's inclination to hold onto documents, letters and memorabilia through the decades. Holsather's maternal grandfather had two brothers who died in their 20s, so the grandfather became the keeper of Smith's letters and artifacts, including his Civil War belt buckle and ammo pouch.

Holsather's mother continued the tradition of preserving items of family history, stored in five large trunks. Kent Holsather's respect for the past is reflected, in part, by his co-authorship of several local history books.

Letters and other materials flesh out Smith's adventure-filled life as a teenage trapper in the wilds of Iowa, as a family man in Missouri forced to kill four vigilantes determined to hang him for being seen with a slave who escaped to freedom, and as a Union soldier captured by Confederates but rescued before he could be shot.

During the war, Smith, who was born in Indiana and lived in several Midwest states, served in Company B, 20th Wisconsin Volunteers. He fought in four battles, including the bloody Battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas, and received three gunshot wounds.

In 1915 he moved to Lynden, where his three daughters lived. He died five years later at the age of 87 and was buried at Lynden Cemetery by a chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union soldiers and sailors.

The family was too poor to buy a permanent grave marker, Holsather said, and a temporary marker, if there was one, disappeared. Cemetery records, if there were any, also were lost over time.

But several records, put together, identified Smith's burial spot. The Holsathers found a map from a now-defunct American Legion chapter in Lynden that noted gravesites to be decorated on Veterans Day. The map included the names of three Civil War veterans buried close together. One of them was Smith. There are grave markers for the other two.

The brothers also found old funeral home records saying Smith was buried in lot 94 at the cemetery.

A few years ago, Cemetery District 10, which oversees Lynden and Greenwood cemeteries, used ground-penetrating radar to locate unused plots and used-but-unmarked plots in both locations. The radar, which detects soil disturbance, indicated that a third person was buried near the two grave markers for the Civil War veterans in lot 94, said Richard Decima, a district commissioner.

Judging by the radar findings, Smith's burial was one of hundreds of unmarked ones, along with about 1,200 unused plots among Lynden Cemetery's 3,300 plots.

Now there's one less unmarked grave.

"He would have been lost forever," Kent Holsather said. "He deserves a gravestone."

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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