By Stan Prager
In another episode of serendipity — an element that has seemed to grace this project since its inception — after visiting a client in Ware I stopped on a lark at the nearby Old St. Williams Cemetery. It was a just a couple of days past Veterans Day in November 2014. I was thinking about the 31st and wondering if any of our men might be buried in a graveyard of this era. I left my car and climbed an ancient hill vacant of visitors that echoed with stillness, under a pale overcast sky that made manifest a heightened sense of the lugubrious hovering over this city of the dead. But the proximity to the holiday meant that little red, white and blue flags dotted the landscape, adding color to the chiaroscuro and marking the graves of veterans. Some distance away, a man in coveralls emerged from a pickup; he looked to be someone who worked for the town, maintaining the cemetery. I was not entirely alone after all.
I wandered through the rows of graves with no specific plan, just randomly pausing at flag-bedecked sites to read the inscriptions that had not been washed out by the passage of time. There were actually quite a few Civil War era burials, some marked not only with the typical miniature American flag found at gravesides but also with five pointed star GAR emblems on little metal posts, which cheered the historian in me. I moved with greater alacrity from one flag to the next, hoping to come upon a member of the 31st, but while there were indeed more than a few Civil War veterans buried here, it looked as if my mission would come to naught. Then, just as I was about to give up, I stumbled upon George Cashill, 31st Infantry Company D, with an adjacent GAR marker! Private Cashill was a twenty-seven year old weaver from Ware who enlisted in December 1861, was wounded in Port Hudson in 1863 and discharged in December 1864. We had no subsequent record of him, but here he was, no doubt returned to his hometown to live out his remaining days!
I was taking pictures of my discovery with my iPhone when the tall, lean man whom I had earlier taken for a town employee approached and struck up a conversation. His eyes twinkled when I told him about our 31st infantry project and the lost voices we had recovered. I learned that he is William “Bill” Cote, who didn’t work for the town after all, but instead is a fascinating man on a personal mission to tend to area veterans’ graves! We chatted amiably for some time about our coinciding interests and exchanged email addresses.
It was in subsequent email communication that Bill provided me with all sorts of information relevant to our project, most prominently a link to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) website with its deep database of grave information. A search turned up data for nearly 500 members of the 31st that not only included burial information but in many cases more detailed info as to what became of these men after the war. George Cashill’s listing informs us that sadly he did not survive his army service for very long, dying only three years after his discharge at the age of thirty-seven. This search for the 31st can be accessed at: http://www.suvcwdb.org/home/search.php?action=list&roff=0&rcnt=50&rmax=486&cond=Unit+like+%27%2531%25%27+and+Branch+like+%27%25INF%25%27+and+State%3D%27MA%27
Bill also went way out of his way to research, generate and email me PDFs with even more detailed records of our veterans sorted both by last name and by cemetery, that takes this material to a whole new level. This stuff is a goldmine: in Cashill’s case alone, the course of his military service and its attendant geography are traced, and we learn that he earned a Purple Heart for his wound at Port Hudson, that for unknown reasons he transferred from Company D to Company E, and that he made a pension application in 1866. There’s also a poignant note that: “Fragments of a broken GAR Post 85 grave marker found buried next to headstone.” These records include citations indicating the authoritative sources for the included data. Also listed is grave location not only by cemetery but also by latitude and longitude – so armed with a GPS you can essentially find every documented gravesite with ease.
In the same email, Bill sent me a map of Old St. Williams Cemetery 31st grave locations that revealed that I had missed one on my visit: Robert Mahon was also laid to rest there. He also sent me a link to the Facebook page of the local Western Massachusetts SUVCW chapter he is affiliated with: L.A. Tifft Camp 15 SUVCW — https://www.facebook.com/pages/LA-Tifft-Camp-15-SUVCW/332145643467995 — also on the web at http://tifftcamp.webs.com/. Bill shared our project website with his group and tells me that it was met with quite favorable acclaim.
Thanks to Bill Cote, we have fortuitously obtained a wealth of significant data about many members of our group that we had never anticipated, thus adding another layer of substance to the project and our dedication to honoring the veterans of the 31st.