BY LARRY WEATHERFORD
When Machelle Long opened her e-mail account on that March morning last year, little did she know she was about to embark upon a quest.
Along the way of her journey through history, she would become acquainted with an American hero who had been buried in an unmarked grave in Danville for more than 100 years.
The first message that popped up that day was from a man named Ray Johnston. Like dozens of other calls and e-mails Long receives each week at the Vermilion County Clerk’s office, he was looking for information.
Long, a 16-year veteran of the Vital Records Department, read that Johnston was looking for the burial site of a Civil War veteran. The man he was looking for had not only served his country, but he was among an elite few. He was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient named Martin McHugh.
During the next year and a half, Long would see various spellings of that last name as she pored over documents and searched the Internet to learn more about him, his ancestors, his family and his descendants. In the mid-1800s it was common to find various spellings of one person’s name, which makes the job of people searching today even harder.
Long’s main goal was to find out if he had died here, and if so, she needed to locate his burial site. Johnston was inquiring on behalf of the U.S. Medal of Honor Historical Society, a group of individuals who work to locate and properly mark the burial sites of those who have received the nation’s highest military honor.
McHugh was born in Ireland a little less than a decade before the country’s mass immigration to America began during the potato famine. He received the recognition for his heroic actions while serving as a seaman in the U.S. Navy on board the ironclad USS Cincinnati during the siege of Vicksburg, Miss., in the spring of 1863.
While part of Long’s job is to help people locate records for genealogical research, she soon realized this was going to be a bigger job than most. Certain records relating to his death and burial had apparently never been filed with the clerk’s office.
“I could have given up when I couldn’t locate a record of his burial,” she said. “But I felt driven to dig deeper.”
She had the blessing of her boss, Vermilion County Clerk Lynn Foster, to find out all she could about him.
“I felt that since Martin McHugh had apparently gone well beyond his duty in serving our country, that we should take those extra steps necessary to find and honor him,” Foster said.
Long’s search would not only take her digging through the vital records stacks at the clerk’s office, but also to other governmental storage locations, online records, the Danville Public Library, the Illiana Genealogical Society and tromping through cemeteries with her 9-year-old grandson, Braxton.
While some of the time she spent on her search for the mysterious McHugh was done at work between her other duties and at lunch time, Long said, “I’d find myself turning on the computer at home and looking for that one little morsel of information that could help me prove where he was buried, or find out one more little bit about him.”
Because the date and place of his death were unknown, finding an obituary was a big job. But she finally came across it in the Feb. 25, 1905, “Daily Democrat” newspaper.
Then she located a burial ledger sheet from the former Berhalter & Olmstead Funeral Home records proving that Martin McHugh or McCue, as listed in his obituary, and his wife were interred at the former St. Patrick’s, now Resurrection Cemetery.
There are no tombstones now, and apparently there never were any permanent grave markers.
The federal government said a next of kin must be found to order the official stone. After scouring the written records and the Internet, no surviving relatives could be located. That job had been complicated by the fact that McHugh’s children were all daughters, and their marriages and moves through the generations made things more difficult.
Finally, last month, after not finding any living relatives, the government relented and said the stone would be provided, and not only with McHugh’s name, but also that of his wife, Catherine, whose unmarked grave is next to his.
Vermilion County already has seven Congressional Medal of Honor recipients on the roll, according to Harold “Sparky” Songer with the Vermilion County War Museum. It is one of the highest numbers in any county in the country, and the top based on population.
McHugh had rescued others while the ship was sinking. He continued to serve in the Navy until the war was over, and then came to Danville and worked as a coal miner.
McHugh apparently had a good sense of humor when it was erroneously reported that he had died of heart disease, and people flocked in to pay their respects. According to the newspapers, so many visitors came to his home on Bryan Avenue that he eventually “walked up and down the principal streets” of town to let people know he was alive and well. Some 13 years later, he did suffer a stroke and spent two years in the Soldiers Home until his death in 1905 at age 69.
Long’s quest isn’t over. She is still looking for more information, descendants and maybe even a picture.
A dedication ceremony is being planned for this spring, shortly before Memorial Day. Organizations already involved are the Vermilion County Museum Society, the Ward Hill Lamon Civil War Roundtable, the Vermilion County War Museum, and the Illiana Civil War Historical Society.