So far, the whole life of Herman Borghardt is told in but two brief documents, one containing just a paragraph, the other only notations on a single page.
The latter is his death certificate. It shows that he had been a farmer, had more recently been living in the City of Milwaukee and may have been a widower. He died an indigent at 77 of a chronic heart condition on Oct. 7, 1898, at Milwaukee County Hospital, and was buried there in the Poor Farm Cemetery.
And one other thing: Duly noted by Dr. E.C. Grosskopf, health officer of Wauwatosa Township, Borghardt was a Civil War veteran, enrolled in Company G of the 41st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
The other existing document is the official roster of the 41st New York, which corroborates his service to his country.
- Related: More about Herman Borghardt
That is enough for area veterans’ advocates and organizations to call for an effort to locate and positively identify Borghardt’s remains — no matter what it takes — and see to it that he gets a proper military burial in a veterans’ cemetery.
If they are to do so, time is of the essence.
Graves of as many as 1,300 to be exhumed
Researchers who have been seeking the site of Borghardt’s burial for years believe it very likely that his bones still lie in a documented indigent cemetery in the shadow of Froedtert Hospital.
Froedtert Health last month announced plans for a new 480,000-square-foot building expansion that would require the removal of most, if not all, of at least 1,300 human remains — including Borghardt’s, if he is indeed there.
Froedtert has filed a “Request to Disturb Catalogued Burial Site” with the Wisconsin Historical Society, asking that it be allowed to remove the burials and give the remains to the UWM Department of Anthropology for scientific study.
If approved, Froedtert announced, construction would begin before year’s end, with a target completion date in 2014.
That timeline has Borghardt’s advocates concerned, because it doesn’t seem to allow much time for a thorough effort to identify his remains among all those crowded graves.
Why would we care less about this soldier, vet asks
“I understand that the majority of those remains, they don’t know who they are,” said Joe Campbell, a current member and former chairman of the Milwaukee County Veterans Board. “After 21 years, only a few have been identified.
“Will they take the time with these remains to look for one man? Well, if they do, there’s going to be a cost to it. And hell yes, we should pay that cost. Or do we just disrespect our history?”
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Campbell is a Vietnam combat veteran and business owner, president of Machinery & Welder Corp. in West Allis. He’s also the founder of Dryhootch.org, a non-profit dedicated to “helping the veteran and their family who survived the war, survive the peace.”
“It’s ironic,” Campbell said. “Just this weekend, 40 Patriot Guard Riders escorted to Green Bay the remains of a fighter pilot who died in Germany in World War II, and his body was just recently found. And I read that just last week, the remains of a U.S. soldier had been found in Korea."
Campbell lost a buddy in Vietnam, a guy left behind with three comrades when ground fire was too hot for helicopters to extract them. The choppers went back the next day, but the four U.S. Army soldiers were gone. They were listed MIA — missing in action.
“They were found about five or six years ago,” Campbell said. “All there was, was teeth.
“We’re still looking for these guys. Well, the same really should be done here. What’s the difference between World War II, or Vietnam, and the Civil War?
“It would be fitting and proper that he be buried in Woods (National Cemetery) with his Civil War buddies.”
Memorialized, but not located and identified
Herman Borghardt already has a memorial headstone, with a handsome bronze plaque, placed in the neatly tended four-acre “Potter’s Field” cemetery maintained by Milwaukee County north of Watertown Plank Road on the County Grounds.
But those who requested that memorial do not believe Borghardt’s actual remains lie under that stone or anywhere near it. They no longer believe he is even in that cemetery.
“We decided to take the route that we did and get him some recognition,” said Marge Berres, who has spent 12 years locating forgotten Civil War veterans’ graves. “But we didn’t know he was there. We only knew that that place was protected and maintained.”
That was in 2008, when Berres, a Greendale middle school teacher and curator of the Oak Creek Historical Society, and Tom Ludka, senior officer of Veterans Services for Waukesha County, applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the memorial marker.
They had happened across Borghardt's war service and burial while researching another Civil War vet. They delved into finding Borghardt, too, but got him a memorial in the meantime.
They’ve continued to search for Borghardt’s resting place, and they now believe it is still in the Froedtert plot, not the Potter's Field.
“Our confidence is very high,” Berres said. “Our research points to that as the most likely place. And at any rate, he’s got to be here in one place or another.”
If not there, he's still here somewhere
Borghardt’s remains, Berres explained, might have been among an unknown number exhumed in the 1920s during the construction of nurses’ housing on the Grounds, at a time when all poorhouse burials were between Wisconsin Avenue and Watertown Plank Road.
Those remains were reburied in a mass grave in a new Potter’s Field cemetery north of Watertown Plank. Besides those remains, it contains only burials from 1929 through 1974, when the practice was stopped and indigents were buried at public expense in private cemeteries.
Another possibility is that Borghardt was among 1,649 remains unearthed in 1991 and are already boxed and stored in the archives at UW-Milwaukee, possibly to be identified someday, possibly not.
There is also a chance that Borghardt lies in the remnant of the cemetery disturbed and mostly exhumed in 1991, still on the Froedtert grounds, still unmarked.
But Berres and Ludka found something in their search that gives a definite location for Borghardt’s remains: He lies in Row S, grave No. 88.
"The reality is that he is buried somewhere in the old cemetery near Froedert," Ludka said. "We thought we had the correct row but realized later that that row could not be identified and was in the old cemetery."
Ludka and Berres searched burial records and found numbers chronologically corresponding to Borghardt's. They believe that properly done, archaeologists could find Borghardt based on the pattern of other burials surrounding his.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where Row A is,” Berres said, “or which way the graves are oriented. We know they were buried chronologically. But we do know that people were buried in that cemetery when they died in the hospital, as opposed to (dying) at one of the other institutions — the Poor House, the Poor Farm, the Insane Asylum, the Orphanage, the Sanitarium — and Herman died at the hospital, so that’s where he would have been buried.
“Herman’s there somewhere.”