Civil War veteran finally receives a headstone

Original wooden plaque unearthed
By Fran Gonzalez | May 24, 2019
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Members of the 20th Maine Volunteers, Regiment Co. B, stand at ease behind a new headstone for American Civil War veteran Pvt. George Burns after delivering a 21-gun salute in his honor May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville.

Montville — A Civil War veteran buried at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville received a long-awaited headstone from the Department of Veterans Affairs, thanks to the research and determination of the Montville Cemetery Committee.

Committee member Dan Masessa, who spearheaded the effort, cited the Maine State Archives as an invaluable resource in helping to verify the soldier, cemetery and plot location.

"I’ve been studying U.S. military history all my life, so a project like this was a natural," Masessa said.

It all started when he became a member of the Montville Cemetery Committee and made visits to various cemeteries in town to assess damage and plan future work days. While at Mount Repose, he became familiar with the George Burns plot, hearing others talk about it.

"Everyone seemed to know he was buried there, although there was no permanent marker," he said. "I knew then it was something I wanted to pursue."

According to Masessa, Pvt. George Burns was in the Maine 6th Battalion during the Civil War. The group was organized Feb. 7, 1862, and mustered out June 17, 1865. While the war was fought between 1861 and 1865, Burns re-enlisted in 1864 and stayed through until the end, he said. His unit was an artillery group with five or six cannons pulled by horses.

Burns was born in Canada in 1837 and landed in Searsmont somehow, Masessa said. He had light hair and blue eyes and was not married, had no children or other family, and died of a brain aneurysm in 1912 at the age of 75. His death certificate was signed by a doctor from Liberty.

No memorial headstone was found at the cemetery, but after probing the ground, a crude wooden marker was located beneath the surface. As seen in local cemeteries, Masessa said, old headstones sometimes fall over and after many years become covered with dirt.

"One day, myself and Mickey Walker spent some time probing the ground at the grave site to see if we could feel out anything that may be a headstone," he said. "There was no stone but, to our surprise, we found the remnants of a wooden Grand Army of the Republic plaque buried a few inches below the soil. The best part is you can still see his name etched into the wood — more proof we have the correct grave."

The Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, apparently erected the crude wooden plaque in Burns' honor. "Someone in GAR carved his name in the plaque," Masessa said.

Masessa thinks it was probably local veterans doing what they could, making the plaque out of what they had on hand, and then sticking in the ground. Even though the plaque is in pieces, it is in remarkably good shape, he said.

Through the Maine State Archives, Masessa was able to find records for Mount Repose Cemetery, specifically the Work Projects Administration surveys done during the Great Depression, to identify Maine war veterans' graves. The survey for Mount Repose identified exactly George Burn’s plot, right where the committee thought it was. It also gave his name, military regimental affiliation and dates of his birth and death.

With this information, Masessa searched military enlistment records and town death records, also from the Maine State Archives. He cross-referenced all the records to ensure it was indeed the George Burns they were looking for. As the group discovered, there were six or seven George Burnses from Maine in the Civil War.

From there, Masessa searched the VA online for information on how to apply for a veteran's headstone. Burns was certainly eligible for a headstone but they first had to make sure he never received one previously.

"I sent in the application to the VA for a headstone with all my supporting documentation," Masessa said. "I also included pictures of the wood plaque we found with George Burns’ name on it."

The VA makes special "Historic Headstones" for Union and Confederate Civil War veterans that mimic the look of old memorial stones. These headstones are replicated in the same design as headstones made during and after the Civil War.

Knowing that delivery of a 230-pound granite headstone could be an issue, Masessa reached out for help.

"I contacted the veterans' cemetery in Augusta and asked if the headstone could be delivered and off-loaded there until we could pick it up," he said, "and they were happy to help. I brought home the headstone and stored it in my garage until we put it in the ground."

On Sunday, May 19, the rain held off while the Montville Cemetery Committee held a special dedication honoring Pvt. George Burns at Mount Repose Cemetery. The 20th Maine Volunteers, a re-enactment company, in full regalia performed a 21-gun salute.

Pastor Peter Sheff from Abundant Grace Ministries in Searsmont was on hand to give a prayer, bugler Mike Whitehead played "Taps" and members of the Sons and Daughters of the Union Veterans presented flags and an honorary dedication.

Cemetery Committee President Hannah Hatfield said the group has taken the lead from Ginny Walker, who was an avid member of the committee for decades.

"She passed away this past year," Hatfield said, "which is a big loss to our community in many ways.

"She did, however leave a legacy of volumes of research and records of all the Montville cemeteries with specific attention to the veterans’ graves and memorials, for which we are so grateful.”

 

This historic reproduction headstone, issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, now marks the grave of Pvt. George Burns, American Civil War veteran. A dedication service was held May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
The original wooden plaque made for Pvt. George Burns by members of the local Grand Army of the Republic Post. It was placed at his grave when he died in 1912. The plaque was discovered by the Montville Cemetery Committee while probing the ground, searching for a possible lost headstone. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Members of the 20th Maine Volunteers, Regiment Co. B, fire a 21-gun salute to honor Civil War veteran Pvt. George Burns May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Mike Whitehead plays "Taps" at the memorial service held for Civil War veteran George Burns May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Sons and Daughters of the Union Veterans, at the Pvt. George Burns Civil War veteran memorial service May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Members of the 20th Maine Volunteers, Regiment Co. B, fire a 21-gun salute to honor Civil War veteran Pvt. George Burns May 19 at Mount Repose Cemetery in Montville. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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