Searching for unsung heroes

Glenn Layton of Wyoming, left, and Dan Cowgill of Middletown mark the grave of a Delaware Civil War soldier with a flag and a GAR star after researching the record of the veteran’s service. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Glenn Layton of Wyoming, left, and Dan Cowgill of Middletown mark the grave of a Delaware Civil War soldier with a flag and a GAR star after researching the record of the veteran’s service. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)


SMYRNA — The notion that the remains of Civil War soldiers might rest beneath unmarked stones didn’t sit well with two descendants of Union veterans.

So Dan Cowgill of Middletown and Glenn Layton of Wyoming drafted themselves to spearhead the effort to make sure graves of Delaware’s Civil War soldiers are marked so anybody visiting a cemetery readily can see who served during four of the bloodiest years in American history.

Mr. Cowgill pitched the project at the March meeting of the Col. David L. Stricker Camp No. 64, Sons of Union Veterans, of which both he and Mr. Layton are members.

“I wanted to honor veterans who hadn’t been recognized,” Mr. Cowgill said last week before the organization’s May meeting at Belmont Hall in Smyrna.

The goal is to first identify Delaware’s Civil War soldiers, then document and locate their graves and finally to mark it with a heavy aluminum star engraved either with “Veteran” or “GAR.” The latter stands for the Grand Army of the Republic, a post-Civil War veterans’ organization. The reverse side will be marked with the project’s sponsor, Col. David L. Stricker Camp No. 64.

The War Between the States began in 1861 and ended in 1865. Members of the Sons of Union Veterans trace their lineage from the soldiers who fought to preserve the United States as one nation. The Civil War Trust, a nonprofit preservation organization, estimates 620,000 men died in the war.

Mr. Layton quickly stepped forward to volunteer to help. The idea wasn’t new to the retired teacher.

He had a similar thought 15 years ago while researching his own family connections to the Civil War.

“The whole thought that there are people without a marker, maybe my own family, got me thinking,” he said. “About five years ago I went to a cemetery, Riverview in Wilmington, looking for my great-great-great grandfather — he fought in the 7th Delaware. He had nothing. Not even a stone.”

With the help of cemetery staff Mr. Layton found the grave. He contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs and provided the necessary documentation to show his ancestor was a Union veteran, leading to a marker being placed.

“About five years ago, we did our Memorial Day service there and honored him,” Mr. Layton said. The service is an annual event held by Camp No. 64 and the 2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry. Mr. Layton is a former commander of the infantry, a group dedicated to preserving Civil War history through reenactments, living history displays and educational activities.

This year’s Memorial Day service will be at 11 a.m. today at Barratt’s Chapel near Frederica.

The battle ahead
The two recognize the challenge they face.

“It’s a beast,” said Mr. Cowgill.

“A huge beast,” Mr. Layton added.

“It’s very daunting,” Mr. Cowgill, who works in information technology, said. “We know there were 12,000 soldiers from Delaware. In the first cemetery we went to — Odd Fellows in Milford — we found 70 to 80.”

Finding those four score graves was no easy feat when one considers that Odd Fellows Cemetery has 9,000 graves, according to Mr. Layton. They easily eliminated the 2,000 graves from the modern era and then looked at birthdates from 1805 to 1849 to narrow the 7,000 to about 500 graves in the right age range.

The tricky part is connecting the known Civil War soldier to the right grave.

For Mr. Layton, the process starts with J. Thomas Scharf’s “History of Delaware,” which lists the 1st through 6th Delaware regiments. He uses www.fold3.com, a subscription website that provides access to military records, to find the 7th through 9th regiments. He then tries to match a soldier with a grave using online resources such as www.findagrave.com or www.ancestry.com. He and Mr. Cowgill also have invested in a number of Delaware cemetery research books.

They rely heavily on U.S. military pension applications and records. Those files can contain a treasure trove of supporting documents such as narratives of events during service, marriage certificates, birth records, death certificates, pages from family Bibles, family letters, depositions of witnesses, affidavits, discharge papers and other supporting papers.

“Sometimes I have three computer programs open at once,” Mr. Layton said. “You kind of get in a zone.”

“Only three?” teased Mr. Cowgill. “I can have six programs running.”

Research challenges
Both are veterans at tracking Civil War connections. Mr. Cowgill has documented 16 Civil War soldiers in his family, “split almost equally,” between Union and Confederate. He’s originally from West Virginia, a divided border region that seceded from Virginia during the war and gained statehood in 1863.

Mr. Layton has 10 ancestors who qualify him for membership in the Sons of the Union Veterans and another 30 or so cousins, mostly from Delaware. He also has found a cousin who served in the Confederate army.

While the Internet has made records more accessible, it hasn’t eliminated the problem of common names held by soldiers of nearly the same age nor of people with little documentation.

“There’s a lot of frustration when you can’t nail it down,” Mr. Layton said.

The research time adds up.

“It can take five minutes to two hours,” Mr. Cowgill said, to document just one soldier’s service.

The documentation is only part of the battle, though. They also must physically locate the grave, which might not have a headstone.

Mr. Layton used the Odd Fellows Cemetery as an example.

“Eighty-one of the 500 graves in Milford we could confirm were soldiers,” he said. “Eighteen have markers, 47 do not have any military marker and 16 are unknown. They may not even have a tombstone.”

Mr. Cowgill said another challenge also could arise once the graves are located. “We have to work with the cemeteries because some have rules where the family may have to approve placing the marker.”

In some cases it could be difficult, if not impossible, to get that permission if no descendants are found. Even finding possible descendants are likely beyond the resources they have, he said.

A winning strategy
But that’s a beast for another day. For now the two are honing their tactics.

“We have to have focus,” Mr. Layton said. “So it’s Delaware soldiers, and one cemetery at a time.”

They want to cover the entire state and “that’s where the bear comes in,” said Mr. Layton.

They started with Kent County, will move on to Sussex and hope to get help with New Castle.

While the two veteran researchers want to document, locate and mark every Delaware Civil War soldier’s grave, they realistically expect some to slip past them through lack of documentation. They also aim to pass along documentation on Confederate soldiers to their counterpart in gray, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, represented in southern Delaware by the Delaware Grays, Camp No. 2068.

The project is limited to Union soldiers in part because of money — each heavy aluminum star costs about $15 — and because Confederate graves usually are marked with the “Iron Cross of Honor.”

Since beginning the project in March, Mr. Layton and Mr. Cowgill have completed eight cemeteries and have ordered the first batch of 30 star markers. Those will be placed sometime in June. That, too, will be laborious since each marker will be set in concrete.

They hope that people who have a Delaware Civil War soldier in their family tree will contact them, whether it is to ask about marking the grave, to donate money or to help with the project.

Financial help is needed, but also research assistance and then field work.

“We need people who are diligent,” said Mr. Layton. “They cannot assume anything.”

Mr. Cowgill agrees. “We don’t want anyone who is lackadaisical.”

The project started out as a way to recognize Civil War service but its value as database for genealogists and historians is not lost on Mr. Layton and Mr. Cowgill. They plan to share the information gathered with cemeteries and the Delaware State Archives.

“The information we are gathering,” Mr. Layton said, “may be more important than the markers.”

graves box

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