News & Politics

“I Couldn’t Give Up on These Guys”

Forty soldiers died defending Washington. When a park ranger discovered that some of their graves had been misidentified, finding the truth—and honoring the heroes—became his mission.

Even though the names of the soldiers had been carved in stone for more than a century, National Park Service ranger Ron Harvey Jr. had his doubts.

The Battle of Fort Stevens was 135 years old when Harvey began working in Rock Creek Park in 1999. A Fairfax County native, he was intent on recounting the story of Washington’s only Civil War battle through the eyes of those killed on a once-rural stretch of the city now roughly bookended by a Safeway and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

But as Harvey delved into the lives of the 40 Union soldiers who died July 11 and 12, 1864, defending the nation’s capital from General Jubal Early’s Confederate troops, questions began to emerge.

On the evening of July 12, the bodies had been buried in the middle of farmer James Malloy’s fruit orchard.

“With the rude tenderness of soldiers, we covered them in the earth,” George T. Stevens wrote in his 1866 book, Three Years in the Sixth Corps. “We marked their names with our pencils on the little head-boards of pine, and turned sadly away to other scenes.”

Within a decade, marble headstones replaced the deteriorating pine boards at what evolved into Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Avenue, one of the tiniest of the National Park Service’s 14 national cemeteries.

When Harvey began researching the names on the headstones, he unearthed some surprises. First, military records revealed that the only Mark Stoneham who served in the Civil War had died in 1863—a year before the Fort Stevens battle. Sleuthing through National Archives records and online military databases, he discovered that the names on three other headstones also were wrong. But if Mark Stoneham, William Tray, George Garvin, and H. McIntire didn’t die fighting there, who did?

Finding out became an obsession. Harvey spent almost every spare hour of the next nine years combing through Civil War interment lists and cross-checking paper and digital sources. Resetting the sinking gravestones, he found different names carved into the buried ends. But those names didn’t solve the mysteries; they just indicated that the marble had been recycled.

“My job is to get to the truth,” Harvey says about his pursuit. “As Lincoln said, ‘History is not history unless it is the truth.’ ”

Here’s what his doggedness uncovered: Private Wilhelm Frei, 25, a German-born blacksmith of the 25th New York Cavalry’s Company D, is buried in grave 19, incorrectly marked “Wm. Tray.” Corporal Edward Garvin, 33, a Philadelphian of the 61st Pennsylvania Infantry’s Company I, is buried in grave 11, marked with his brother’s name, George. (George survived the battle.) Private Thomas McIntyre, a 19-year-old Irish immigrant of the 61st Pennsylvania’s Infantry’s Company K, who also used the alias Thomas Morrison, is buried in grave 15, marked “H. McIntire.” In grave 2, marked “Mark Stoneham,” lies Sergeant Richard Castle, 25, of the 43rd New York Infantry’s Company G.

Harvey concluded that E.S. Bavett is buried in grave 9, as marked. But Bavett was a civilian—he served with the local Quartermaster Corps composed of clerks, teamsters, laborers, and government employees, not as an enlisted soldier with the 43rd New York Infantry.

Knowing that there were upward of 620,000 Civil War deaths, Harvey wasn’t shocked that headstones were mislabeled. But he felt obliged to try to correct the errors—to honor the right soldiers in their final resting places.

“If it weren’t for these 40 men right here,” Harvey says, gesturing to the stones encircling a flagpole and shaded by a maple tree, “DC might have fallen. I couldn’t give up on these guys. Even though I never met them face to face, I feel as if they’re friends.”

Harvey’s findings will be highlighted July 11 during the park service’s daylong recognition of the 145th anniversary of the battle. Interpretive signs now explain which soldiers are really buried where.

Harvey, honored with a park-service award for his 95-page report, “Buried in History,” is intent on organizing a reunion for the descendants of “his” soldiers.

“They are part of an elite fraternity,” he says, noting that E.R. Campbell, the last surviving Fort Stevens veteran, was buried at the cemetery in 1936. “I’d love to have them stand on the ground where their ancestors made such a significant difference in American history.”

Harvey, 40, next wants to explore the freedmen’s villages that once flourished around Washington’s circle forts. Explaining his interest in history, and his persistence, he says: “The three words a park ranger hates to say are ‘I don’t know.’ ”

This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.