A finally righteous honor
Alpena’s first war casualty finally gets correct marker
ALPENA–“They asked the 16th Michigan to lead the charge,” Don Londo said, his eyes distant, narrating the scene as though he were there. “And George Guild was right up front, and that’s where he took his bullet.”
In a small back office, dubbed “the war room,” Londo sat in an armchair in his Alpena Township home, a closed file on his lap, and told stories of Alpena residents who long ago served in the American Civil War.
The armchair historian has spent years researching the history of Alpena residents who served in the American Civil War, a hobby that led him to an instrumental role in replacing a tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery, giving an Alpena man his overdue honor.
Spotting a photo some years ago of Civil War veterans from Alpena in a book about the city’s past, Londo settled on the idea of researching all Alpena residents who served in the Civil War, getting to know them as people and not just grainy images on a page.
As he researched, using newspaper clippings and snippets of history from the collections at the Alpena County Library, the stories of soldiers came to life, from their youthful enlistment ceremonies on the courthouse lawn to their final resting place, for some, at Alpena’s Evergreen Cemetery
“They all did amazing things,” Londo said. “They were a bunch of amazing people.”
The file on Londo’s lap was one of many kept in a cabinet drawer, each labeled with a man’s name.
William Johnson. Seth Carpenter. Cyrus Irwin.
For each name, a file.
And for each file, a story.
Before James Potter co-owned a hardware store at the corner of River Street and 2nd Avenue in Alpena, he belonged to the 22nd Michigan. His father-in-law was a Baptist minister who conducted the funeral of the son of Chief Mich-e-ke-wis.
Alpena resident William Potter escaped from a Confederate army prison by jumping off the top of a train and roaming the countryside for 10 days before he was found by Union troops.
Charles Martin was one of the many Maine residents who ended up in Alpena after the war (so many, in fact, that State Avenue was originally called State of Maine Street). He served on all the major battlefields of the war, often running ahead of the soldiers in the revered and perilous role of flag bearer. Captured at Gettysburg, he was released and promptly re-enlisted under the name of Charles Davis, which became the name by which he was known in Alpena.
Brought to the area by boat when he was 10, gazing in wonder at the Native Americans on the shore, Arthur Irwin grew up in the newly formed city of Alpena and enlisted at 18.
Alpena local Moses Charbonneau, known as “The Ice Man” (“because he delivered ice,” Londo explained), used to walk around town with a limp left over from Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, where he was knocked from his horse by a cannon’s blast. The horse, killed in the blast, fell on top of Charbonneau, trapping him until he was found after the battle by volunteers searching for bodies.
The stories came thick and fast from Londo, told with relish as by an old friend.
The story of George Guild ends differently than the rest.
Unlike the other men in Londo’s drawer, Guild died on the battlefield. And, unlike the rest of the stories, Guild’s story was changed because Don Londo was part of it.
Guild was Alpena’s first war casualty. Struck in the chest by a spinning bullet, he lingered a month in a Washington, D.C., hospital before succumbing to his injury.
A terse form letter informed Guild’s widow that her husband wasn’t coming home. She could come east to claim the body, the letter said, but that was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
Guild was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed military cemetery on the grounds of General Robert E. Lee’s former estate in Virginia. A tombstone was erected over the grave — a stone engraved with the wrong name.
“William Guild,” the stone read, instead of “George,” for 153 years misidentifying the Alpena man who was the first in the city’s history to die on the battlefield for his country.
In the midst of his probing into the soldiers of Alpena’s past, Londo’s eyes caught on a grave marker that didn’t seem right. He couldn’t prove at first that the Arlington’s grave was Guild’s, but his research made it clear: Guild had been buried under the wrong name.
Letters to Arlington requesting a change went unanswered for years, Londo said.
It wasn’t until a Michigan congressman, U.S. Rep. John Moolenar, from Midland, took an interest in the story and reached out to Arlington that George Guild’s memory was properly honored by a new headstone, placed over his grave in Arlington earlier this spring.
Londo’s intense dive into the past of Alpena’s Civil War veterans gave him a chance to right a wrong. Even more significantly, Londo said, his research and learning about the lives of those who served in the war allows him to honor people who are too often forgotten.
“We owe them a tremendous debt. We really do,” Londo said. “We don’t talk about them enough. We talk a lot about patriotism, but we never talk about what it means.”
Our country’s wars are not just events, Londo feels. They are made of people — people whose place in history shouldn’t be forgotten or left shut in drawers.
“Every community has these heroes,” Londo said. “That’s the important thing of it. Alpena is not an isolated little town. It is a part of the fabric of the United States of America. It contributes into it, and it has its place.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.