Civil War Soldier in Unmarked Grave Remembered on Veterans Day
Herman Borghardt, veteran and volunteer, lies somewhere among us. On Veterans Day, a small group of the fervently faithful made sure he was not forgotten and asserted that he should not remain lost.
Across the nation, veterans living and dead were honored Sunday, and multitudes of the graves of those who served were decorated with flags and flowers.
In a small, solemn ceremony in Wauwatosa, one soldier who had been forgotten for more than 100 years – and whose exact grave site is still unknown – received prayers, testimonials, a beautiful wreath in the national colors, and an honor guard salute from descendants of those who served with him long ago in America's deadliest war.
To the accompaniment of a droning, musical wind, the Gettysburg Address was recited over the place his bones might well lie, read by some from the text, recited by some from memory.
At an unmarked potter's field cemetery on Doyne Avenue on the grounds of Froedtert Hospital, three members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War stood at attention in the uniform of the Federal Army, carrying rifled muskets of the time. Dean Collins, in full vestments of a Roman Catholic deacon and as chaplain of the group, intoned a eulogy to Herman Borghardt.
Collins, who is also the assistant chief of police of the City of Brookfield, delivered in its entirety the familiar Biblical passage on burial "in a new grave" that concludes, "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life."
Among the two dozen or so others who also attended were historians, veterans advocates and regular citizens who gathered not just to remember Borghardt but to call on the state, the county and private interests to make every effort to locate his remains and see to it he is given a proper military burial.
Two pieces of paper, a single life
Borghardt is one of two known veterans who were among about 7,500 people who died as indigents and were buried in the care of Milwaukee County, somewhere on the County Grounds.
Only two brief documents so far found chronicle the life and death of Herman Borghardt. One is the roster of the 41st New York Volunteer Regiment of Infantry, which records that he was enrolled in service in June 1861 at the age of 34 and was discharged for disability in March 1862.
The other document is his death certificate, which notes his veteran's status with that regiment and the fact that he died in 1898 at 77 years of age as an indigent, or at least without known relatives, at the County Hospital.
Before, between, and after those documents were created, the life of Herman Borghardt is almost entirely unknown. Regimental histories say that while most of the 41st New York was recruited from German immigrants in New York City, Borghardt's company, Company G, was one of two recruited from around Philadelphia and neighboring parts of New Jersey.
The death certificate adds that he gave his profession as farmer, may have been a widower, was the son of parents Gustav and Mary who were born in Germany, last lived in Milwaukee, died of a chronic heart ailment and was buried in the county poor farm cemetery.
Forgotten for more than a century
For 110 years, from his burial until 2008, when historians found his death certificate, no one remembered Borghardt's service to his country, not on Memorial Day, Veterans Day or any other day. He was entirely forgotten.
And since his burial, many of the graves of the poor on the County Grounds have been disturbed and disinterred. Some were reinterred without identification, and others – 1,650 so far – were turned over to a university research collecton. All grave markers in remaining cemeteries have disappeared, and records of exactly who was buried where have been lost.
But two local historians, Tom Ludka and Marge Berres, believe strongly that, based on their research, Borghardt still lies in his original grave in one of the two remaining burial places on the grounds of Froedtert Hospital.
Froedtert has now asked the State Historical Society for permission to dig up as many as 1,300 human remains occupying one those tracts, and it is there that Ludka and Berres believe Borghardt most likely lies.
Froedtert has plans to build a 480,000-square-foot expansion on the tract, and in its request it asks the state to approve the exhumation and give disposition of the remains to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Department of Anthropology, which now holds the 1,650 reamains unearthed earlier, in 1991.
Veteran stands out as symbol for all indigents
No one in attendance Sunday disputes Froedtert's need to expand on the burial site or the plan to disinter the remains of the poor to do so. But everyone in attendance felt that those remains ought not to be turned over to research but rather reburied with dignity.
Michael McBride, a child psychiatrist who took up the cause when the first group of remains was accidentally disturbed in 1991 and were then excavated and turned over to research, said that the indigents who died in the county's care and were buried at its expense ought to be returned to the earth at the county's expense.
Ludka and Berres, who have donated their time for 12 years to locating and recognizing the graves of dozens of Civil War veterans, were present and said the same – or, that at the least, after a period of research in which the remains were cataloged, should then be reinterred.
Joe Campbell, a member and former chairman of the Milwaukee County Veterans Board and the founder of Dryhooch.org, a veterans' outreach group, speaks mainly for Borghardt but agreed that all those beneath his feet deserved proper and respectful burial.
Barb Agnew, founder of the Friends of the Monarch Trail and advocate for preserving the historic Eschweiler Buildings on the County Grounds, has now taken up the cause of the county's indigents as well.
Collins – deacon, chaplain and ranking police officer – came to deliver a benediction to Borghardt, but he also felt that those others buried with him, too, were worthy of the dignity of a proper reburial.
With full military honors...
Veteran Herman Borghardt drew all together, though – one man, so little known, yet so undeniably worthy of respect for his service to the country.
It has been noted that the United States government continues to support the efforts of veterans groups to recover the remains of Word War II service men and women from the fields and forests of Germany and France to the jungles of Pacific Islands, from the cold mountains of Korea to the rice paddies and rivers of Vietnam.
Yet Herman Borghardt has lain right here among us in Wauwatosa for a century and more, but no one other than a pair of amateur historians and a small handful of believers has sought him.
"It reminds us of the service and the sacrifices that our ancestors made on behalf of our country," Collins said after the service, "particularly for those of us whose ancestors actually fought in the Civil War for the Union.
"We as the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War see it as our mission and our duty to honor the memories of our Civil War ancestors, and actually to take care of their graves.
"We also ensure that headstones are replaced if they become illegible. We work with the Veterans Administration to get those headstones, and we erect them wherever we find a veteran's grave that is unmarked from the Civil War."
Collins said it was important that the state make every effort possible to take care in the exhumation of all the remains and in particular to identify Borghardt's remains among them by any means possible.
"I would assume that the people who are doing these exhumations are professionals and that they realize their ethical responsibilities toward their fellow human beings who have gone before them," Collins said. "We should certainly expect that they would be treated with dignity and if at all possible, perhaps that the survivors can be notified and even take custody of the remains if they desire.
"From the viewpoint of the Sons of Union Veterans," Collins said, "we would hope that Herman Borghardt, if so identified, would be given all the military honors and rites that he would be entitled to as a veteran – in a military cemetery."