Donald Purn won’t let history forget McHenry County’s Civil War veterans.
That has meant a five-year crusade to painstakingly track down the veterans amid incomplete records.
It also has meant visiting the cemeteries in the county to search for the graves.
Some were never marked. Others have been vandalized, the headstones knocked over, completely broken or misplaced.
Purn has consulted with cemetery workers and been led to unmarked sites.
“Sometimes, I know they’re buried there and there’s no headstone, or there’s a record they’re buried, but we’re not quite sure where,” he said.
“One gentleman even took me out and stuck a long pole in the ground. ‘Yep, there’s a casket there,’ ” he told Purn.
Purn has discovered at least 35 missing headstones. With the help of the McHenry County Civil War Round Table, of which he is a member, donors and others, he’s replaced seven so far.
He’s hoping to soon receive the go-ahead to replace at least two more.
“I’ll never finish,” he said of his effort.
Yet, he’ll never give up.
He’s already put in countless hours so far, displaying a passion for history others can and should learn from, those who know him say.
“It reminds us not to forget that the freedoms and things you believe in don’t come without cost,” said Nancy Fike, administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society.
All this from a retired middle school teacher from Algonquin, a Peace Corp volunteer who’s not a veteran himself.
It’s easy, perhaps second-nature to remember veterans on days such as Memorial Day. But for Purn and others with a passion for history, remembering should be constant.
He does what he does, he said, simply because someone should.
“Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just a blank lot. How would anybody know who’s there, if they were even a veteran?
“Some fathers and sons from a town would leave and join the regiments together. They’d leave their kids and wives to take care of the farms,” he said. “A lot of times they gave up a lot to fight for what they believed in at the time.”
There’s James Johnson, a confederate soldier buried in Union, his headstone installed last Memorial Day and dedicated during the town’s holiday ceremony. And Charles Dodd, an infantry veteran who died in 1864 and is buried in Algonquin Cemetery.
Purn enjoys learning the veterans’ stories and telling those stories to all who will listen.
He talks of Earl Denison Thomas of Woodstock, who joined the war at age 13. By the age of 15, he was a sergeant major and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“A lot of people never heard of him,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. It’s not recorded.”
Once he tracks down the veterans and locates the graves, Purn must prove through records presented to the Veterans Administration they are veterans. Cemetery officials also must sign off on the documents.
Then Purn still must raise enough money for the headstones, hosting fundraising presentations throughout the community on veterans and POWs.
For years, he’s worked with Zoia Monument Co. of Woodstock, which installs the headstones for $100 a marker. The company doesn’t make any money on the project, basically doing it at cost.
“They’re preserving history there,” said Tony Zoia, who works with his father, Jim, a veteran of the Korean War. Created in 1890, the company dates back four generations of Zoias
“Those old graves, if they’re unmarked, no one knows they’re there,” Zoia said. “The history is really in the marker that’s left there. ... There’s no indication on Memorial or Veterans Day of where to put a flag, so that’s important.”
The Civil War Round Table has a listing of 2,811 soldiers from McHenry County or buried in McHenry County. About 900 burial locations in 58 cemeteries have been identified as from the Civil War, and the group has maps and information on about 80 percent of those individuals, Purn said.
The Marengo City Cemetery has the most Civil War veterans, with about 152 buried in its grounds. Next is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Harvard with more than 100 Civil War veterans.
Also a member of the Algonquin Historic Commission, Purn has gathered about 3,500 historic records of the town through computer and library research.
What he’s done through all of his efforts, Fike said, is set a standard for others to do the same in their communities.
“Recognizing that people gave their lives and had to fight on our own soil for what they believe in is something we’re doing a better job of in our own times,” she said. “When soldiers come back, they’re honored. They didn’t have a whole lot of that back then.
“They came back and went to the plows and their horses, if they did come back at all.”