Unraveling mysteries has always been a major part of police work, but when a Civil War tombstone was discovered lying in some brush, the very uniqueness of the case not only presented a novel experience but also a decidedly unexpected challenge. The unusual nature and age of the item greatly complicated matters as potential witnesses, family members, and other evidence were lost to the passing of time. In addition, traditional sources of information were virtually useless.
A home owner initially discovered the white marble headstone while clearing away some undergrowth in a St. Louis County back yard on November 22, 1996. Its engraving read:
No one knew how it got there, or how long it was lying in the brush. Dirty, worn, and with the lower left corner broken away, the St. Louis County Police Department seized the tombstone and held it as found property. They assigned complaint number 96-0428028 to the case, and issued a general broadcast message to police agencies in Missouri and Illinois advising them of the recovery. Receiving no response to the teletype, the investigating officers then contacted Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in an attempt to determine if the headstone may have originated from their burial facility. Once officials at Jefferson Barracks confirmed that they had no record of such an internment, the Department placed the tombstone in the police property vault where it remained nestled among unclaimed bicycles, lawn mowers, and other miscellaneous items for almost three years. After three years, standard procedure slated the
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tombstone for destruction, but the sergeant in charge of the property unit had no desire to see the stone broken up and discarded. So, bending the rules a little, he kept it in his care believing that the stone, and the soldier it honored, deserved a better fate.
In April of 1999, the St. Louis County Police Sergeant, approaching retirement and no longer able to protect it, contacted me in the hope that I might be able to track down the tombstone's origin. As an avid student of the Civil War, and having an ancestor that served with Captain Ramsey's artillery battery, Tennessee Volunteers, Confederate States of America, I readily agreed to assist in the case. However, my employment with a different police department complicated matters somewhat, as it necessitated that any investigation be unofficial and in addition to my normal duties.
Utilizing data obtained from the face of the headstone, I began with a simple Internet search which disclosed that Camp Butler, Illinois, had been a major mustering-in and training site for Union troops, with the first recruits arriving in August of 1861. Located east of Springfield, Illinois, the camp was named for William Butler, a two-term treasurer for the State of Illinois. Thirty-nine regiments of infantry and an additional nine regiments of cavalry eventually trained at the facility, part of which later served as an internment camp for Confederate prisoners of war. Designated a national cemetery in the years following the Civil War, Camp Butler is currently the final resting place for scores of both Union and Confederate dead.
As I did not know where J. Milton Carr was from, what his rank was, or even if he had fought for the North or the South, I called the administrative staff at Camp Butler. Explaining the situation to them, I requested that they search their records for any possible information regarding Carr. Regrettably, similar to the results obtained from Jefferson Barracks, they could find no record or burial plot under Carr's name.
Surmising that Carr must have been buried in a private cemetery, I then determined to learn if any state records existed in regard to his death. In checking with the appropriate state agencies, the Bureau of Vital Statistics for the State of Illinois disclosed that death records in their system only extended back to 1910, while Missouri officials indicated such events were not documented until 1920.
Frustrated that local and state sources were not providing the information needed to solve the case, I turned to federal government repositories. I started with the Armed Forces Record Center in St. Louis, but met similar results as before. I recalled that the National Park Service offered a computerized listing of
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both Union and Confederate Civil War veterans at some of the national battlefields. Obtaining a phone number through directory assistance, I then called the staff at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in southwestern Missouri. After explaining the situation, I asked the park rangers if they could possibly render some assistance in this matter. Their response came within two days. J. Milton Carr had served as a private with Company A of the 49th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the unit organized at Camp Butler in the fall of 1861 under the command of Colonel William R. Morrison.
With this information, I requested a search with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C. Within two weeks I received a packet of company muster rolls and other documents which disclosed that J. Milton Carr was a twenty-one year old farmer from Monroe County, Illinois, when he enlisted for a three-year term in September of 1861. Five feet, ten inches tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes, Carr was larger than the average soldier of the day. Shortly after arriving at Camp Butler, young Carr fell victim to camp life's close quarters and poor sanitation, succumbing to measles while a patient at the general hospital.
Notified of their son's passing, the young man's family must have then made the journey to Springfield, Illinois, to claim the body. Loading the deceased onto a wagon or train, Carr was subsequently conveyed to Columbia, Illinois, a small farming community located on the Mississippi River about ten miles southeast of St. Louis. There he was interred in Palmier Cemetery. Buried on the brow of a small hill overlooking a shallow valley, Carr's family commemorated his gravesite with a white marble tombstone lovingly engraved with angels and the above inscription.
As J. Milton Carr rested on his piece of high ground without ever having "seen the elephant," the surviving members of the 49th Illinois served in the Third Brigade of McClernand's Division and received their baptism of fire at Fort Donelson and Shiloh during early 1862. Losing 31 killed and 136 wounded in their first two actions, the regiment again tasted battle at Corinth, Mississippi, and again during Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg Campaign. Assigned to the Red River expedition, the 49th Illinois participated in the capture of Fort DeRussey, and on April 9, 1864, engaged in the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. Ordered back north, on December 15-16, 1864, the regiment fought in the Battle of Nashville, which wrecked General Hood's Confederate Army of the Tennessee. Two weeks later, the 49th marched to Paducah, Kentucky, and commenced garrison duty. Finally, on September 9, 1865, the 49th Illinois returned to Camp Butler for final payment and discharge.
Long after the guns fell silent, unknown persons vandalized Carr's grave and removed the tombstone. The vandals' names and their motive will undoubtedly never be known. The incident occurred so long ago that, when I checked with the Columbia, Illinois, Police
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Department to ascertain if they had any report on file, I was informed that the theft predated their existing record systems. Yet, despite the lack of any formal incident report, the civilian clerk in charge of the Columbia, Illinois, Police Department records section was intrigued enough by the story to do some research on her own. A short time later, the clerk provided me with the name and contact number for an individual serving on the Palmier Cemetery Commission.
I subsequently called the commissioner and explained the situation. The commissioner agreed to check their burial records and contact me with any findings. When I heard from the commissioner several days later, I was stunned to hear that a regulation, military-style headstone marked Carr's gravesite. The commissioner then postulated that the tombstone on this side of the Mississippi River must be a duplicate of some type and that we could destroy it. Adamantly disputing this assertion, I told the commissioner that I had an Application for Headstone Form among the documents obtained from the National Archives. This indicated that someone ordered a replacement headstone from the United States War Department on January 1, 1939, to place on Carr's unmarked grave. Therefore, the original headstone must have been missing.
As the commissioner was still not convinced, we compared the inscriptions carved into the two and discovered that the one in my possession was by far the more intricate. The commissioner finally agreed that the missing one must certainly be the original family tombstone. We then made arrangements to return the stone, and on Saturday morning, June 26, 1999, I journeyed to Columbia, Illinois. Meeting the commissioner at a local restaurant, we then proceeded to the cemetery, located about a mile north of the city. After being separated from its intended site for six decades or more, we finally delivered the tombstone into the rightful custody of the Palmier Cemetery Oversight Commission.
Hundreds of men were killed and wounded in the 49th Illinois Regiment during the war, including its original commander; yet J. Milton Carr's sacrifice, and the multitudes like his, for a worthy cause was no less honorable than those that died in action. The theft of the stone marker dishonored such devotion, and it was with a great deal of satisfaction that the lost tombstone could at long last be returned to its rightful place on the brow of the hill.
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