It’s always the young who fight our wars.
John Marshall Hoyt was 24 when on Aug. 7, 1861, living in Wisconsin, he enlisted in the Union Army. That was four months after the beginning of the Civil War, which concluded in 1865 with 620,000 soldier deaths, the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Without soldiers like Hoyt there literally would be no United States of America. What would have happened if the Confederates had won?
Hoyt was 25 when he was first wounded in battle, a bullet to his thigh. He went back to fight.
He was 27 when a gunshot wound to his groin had him hospitalized for three months. He went back to fight.
He fought in some of the most gruesome clashes of the war, such as the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, in which 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of savage combat.
So at the very least, when in his retirement years Hoyt died in Seattle in 1923, he deserved a headstone after being buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on top of Queen Anne.
But for 98 years his grave was unmarked, his casket beneath dirt and roots from a nearby oak tree.
He finally got a 42-by-13-by-4-inch, 230-pound light gray granite standard-issue remembrance from the Department of Veteran Affairs because of a Woodinville artist.
Richard Heisler specializes in photo-realism landscape and horse portraits, and has immersed himself in Civil War history.
With his family living in New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast, he says, “I grew up going to battlefields and museums.”
He now runs a site called Seattle’s Civil War Legacy, dedicated to telling the stories of the more than 2,000 Civil War vets he estimates ended up in King County. He put that number together as he researched cemeteries, soldiers’ homes and newspaper articles.
Most were Union soldiers, says Heisler.
It’s not clear how many Confederate vets came here, although the state has had a number of memorials to the Confederacy. At one point, for example, in the 1930s the Daughters of the Confederacy put markers on a stretch of Highway 99 honoring Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. The unofficial symbols were “quietly removed,” reported historian Knute Berger in Crosscut.
That same group put up a 10-ton monument to Confederate soldiers at Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery. It was spray-painted and toppled during the 2020 Fourth of July weekend.
Looking through records of vets who have lived in the area, Heisler saw that Hoyt was at Mount Pleasant, but couldn’t find his grave.
The cemetery office looked in their records, and planted “a little flag like utilities do” marking the spot.
Why does a headstone for a long-forgotten Civil War veteran matter?
We’re not a people who consider history much. A little perspective helps, even if abbreviated.
When talking to his students, Greg Downs, a Civil War expert and history professor at the University of California, Davis, tells them, “The United States as it exists now in 2021 could have fallen apart. The United States might seem powerful but it was very different in the 19th century.”
In the 1860s, he tells college kids, “In many respects, slave owners believed that slavery was the future. They hoped to expand.”
Hoyt joined the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry of the famed Iron Brigade, so named because, during a battle, its men had been described as made of iron.
What the Iron Brigade experienced is found in digitized scrapbooks with the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Here is a description of Corp. Gustavus Sargent, hit by a shell at Antietam:
“ . . . (it) broke his thigh and passed into his body, causing his death in a few hours. He was perfectly conscious of his situation, and bore his pain with heroic fortitude, saying to his friend, Mussay, with almost his last breath, ‘I am willing to die.’ ‘Tell my father and friends I fought and died for my country.’”
There were 2.8 million men (and a few hundred women) who served in both armies, according to the National Archives. Few families in the warring states escaped its grim legacy.
” . . . the Civil War took young, healthy men’s lives rapidly, often instantly, and destroyed them with disease, injury, or both,” tells a National Park Service story about the war cemeteries. “Death’s threat, proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared experience of the war’s duration . . .
“The most immediate of death’s challenges was a logistical one, the burial of soldiers in the aftermath of battle . . . Makeshift crews of soldiers were detailed after battles to dispose of the dead and often found themselves lacking basic necessities such as carts or shovels.”
Something the vets from that war did in great numbers was trek to the West. Hoyt was one of them.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which turned 270 million acres, or 10% of the area of the United States, from public domain to private ownership. All it cost to acquire land was a $10 filing fee and $4 commission (a total of $378 in today’s dollars).
For many veterans, says William Deverell, a history professor at the University of Southern California and also a Civil War expert, “The general perception was that the West was a new beginning.”
For vets who had been severely wounded, he says, “The West was advertised as particularly healthy. Lots of good land, lots of sunshine, outdoor beauty, the healing power of nature.”
With the most populous town in Washington Territory being Walla Walla with 722 people, the Pacific Northwest was “a continent away from the blood-drenched battlefields” of the Civil War, according to HistoryLink. The region was slave-free and “populated by men and women intent on making new lives in a new land.”
After the war, Hoyt and his growing family kept moving west.
Records list him as a machinist, farmer, carpenter, contractor.
From Wisconsin it was to Nebraska, then Montana and finally Seattle in 1910 in his retirement years. He and his wife Mary likely came here to be with two adult sons and a daughter who were in the Seattle area.
But no headstone was ordered when he died at age 86.
The VA this year provided his headstone for free. The Iron Brigade Association in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a nonprofit that commemorates the veterans, contributed most of the $900 needed for future upkeep of the gravesite.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., Heisler has organized a dedication for Hoyt’s headstone at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 700 W. Raye St. There will be a color guard from the Washington State Guard and Civil War reenactors in uniform.
Those attending will likely not notice the barren area right next to the headstone. That is where Hoyt’s wife is buried. Mary died four months after her husband.
Her grave also has had no marker for those 98 years, and who knows if it ever will.
Heisler says putting one up would require going through the Hoyt descendants, and as he used resources such as Ancestry.com, he came up empty in locating them.
A memorial for Mary Hoyt would complete the story. But stories, sometimes they don’t wrap up neatly.