Diane Forcell scanned the headlines in her local newspaper and there, somewhere between the obituaries and the high-school track stats, was a story about how some previously unmarked Civil War graves now had proper headstones.
A local war historian had found the graves and filed paperwork with the government to get the military markers provided and installed. There was to be a dedication ceremony on Memorial Day 2006, and the folks responsible wanted to make certain that any relatives of those seven soldiers who were still around knew of it.
Forcell knew that her great-great-grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave in Oak Hill Cemetery in Holmes County, but no one in her family had ever been able to find the spot. She thinks she gasped when she read his name on the list: Charles B. Martin, a private in Company G, 102nd Ohio Infantry. Born 1826, died Jan. 22, 1896.
She called Forrest Chanay, who was listed as the contact. They talked for hours like old friends.
Chanay is a retired bus-company engineer and a talker, whether it’s about his family, the value of an education or the best place to watch a dirt-track car race. But it is his desire to share the history of Holmes County, which he has always called home, and his love of all things Civil War that are most boundless.
And that’s what led the 78-year-old Army veteran to the seven graves.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “To know that my brothers — veterans — are buried somewhere unnoticed and forgotten, well, that didn’t seem right.”
But they were just the beginning.
Even when Chanay was a boy growing up in Killbuck — a burg of 807 people, he says with a chuckle and with authority, as if he counts daily — his interest in military history was limitless. He devoured all the lessons he could. Then, maybe 40 years ago, he figures, he joined a military book club.
When he got his first book about the Civil War, everything changed. He can’t recall the title, and it would be impossible to tell. His den can’t hold another volume, it seems; floor-to-ceiling shelves are stuffed with books. Others cover the desk and the tables. Some are stuffed into boxes in a closet. And don’t even ask about how many fill the basement.
Chanay speaks to classes and groups and helps run the Holmes County Civil War Roundtable. All the stuff needed to do that takes room, he insists. His wife, Marsha, might beg to differ.
His interest in graves started several years ago during evening walks in Killbuck Cemetery just up the road from his house. He noticed that several Civil War graves didn’t have Grand Army of the Republic brass holders and flags. Over time, he acquired some and marked the graves.
That made him wonder about the more than 80 other cemeteries in Holmes County. How many Civil War soldiers are buried in them? And were others without the brass markers, too?
He found out that a national organization — The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War — was using hundreds of volunteers to try to catalog Civil War graves for its National Grave Registration Project, an online database. No one had volunteered to search in Holmes County, so he signed up.
“I thought it would be a little project to occupy my time,” he said. But that was before his emergency triple-bypass heart surgery. Now, this mission is more.
“It motivates me. It keeps me going,” he said. “I’m a little slower now, and I work and sit and work and sit, but how can I stop until I know these veterans are all recognized?”
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War started its grave-registration project in 1996; it went online in 2005. It has nearly 460,000 soldiers’ names, a far cry from the estimated 2.9 million men who served in the Union Army, said Kent Dorr, the project’s Ohio coordinator. There are 66,000 graves registered for Ohio, more than any other state, Dorr said. Among them are 69 in Holmes and 4,861 in Franklin County.
Chanay has documented more than 100 other Holmes County graves and filled out the forms but hasn’t yet submitted them.
He starts with a book that lists every known Ohio Civil War soldier. He matches names with lists compiled by Holmes County genealogists. One shows that as many as 640 men from the county served. Then he heads to the county recorder’s office, flipping through thousands of cemetery records filed in a musty, old card catalog in search of those veterans’ names. He jots down cemeteries and lot numbers as he finds them.
He double-checks cemetery sexton’s books. Once he has potential grave locations, he walks and searches. His marked-up map of Oak Hill Cemetery in Millersburg is larger than the Chanay family kitchen table that seats five. The color yellow means he found the grave, but it has no headstone. Pink means he has found conflicts in the records that need to be reconciled. Black means the grave is properly recorded.
He has been bothered by the ones he finds without brass flag holders specific to the war, but it is the graves without headstones that upset him the most. For the first seven he confirmed — Diane Forcell’s great-great grandfather among them — he filed paperwork with the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration Memorial Program to have the markers delivered back in 2006.
The VA approved them without question. By last year, he had confirmed 16 more. In March, the government sent him 16 denial letters. The rules changed in 2009; to get a federal military headstone on an unmarked grave, a qualified next-of-kin must sign off.
“It is to avoid errors,” said Josephine Schuda, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs.
The change didn’t please some genealogists and community-service groups who preserve veterans’ graves. The Sons of Union Veterans is among many organizations lobbying to relax the new rules, and the VA said a review is underway.
But Schuda said the logic behind the rule is sound: “It could be the real next of kin could come along and find the marker and say it isn’t appropriate. We don’t want that.”
James Pennell is a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran still suffering the effects of Agent Orange exposure. He’s a historian and genealogist from Nashville (the Holmes County one, not the Tennessee one) who helps Chanay with his project.
Both are angered by the government’s denial for the markers.
“These men put their lives on the line, and they deserve to be remembered in history,” Pennell said. “We owe them something, and the most basic thing we can give them is a tombstone.”
Forcell, who lives in Shreve and runs a family jewelry store in Wooster, agrees. Her family had researched her great-great-grandfather’s military records and knew he served from 1861 to 1865. Over the decades, they’d been able to piece together parts of his life, but they never had a place to visit to honor him until Chanay found his grave.
Four generations of her family showed up at the Memorial Day dedication service, and there were as many smiles as tears.
“Knowing that spot and seeing it marked, it was a bit of closure for us,” Forcell said. “To know our loved one had a place of honor, we’re just so grateful.”
The database of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is at www.suvcwdb.org
By Holly Zachariah - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services