Community gathers to honor a forgotten Civil War hero

CERRITOS - John W. Miller was just 29-years-old when the American Civil War broke out.Short and fair, with blue eyes and auburn hair, Miller chose to enlist during the height of the war, eager to help preserve the dissolving Union. Like many Civil War veterans, however, Miller discovered a new life in the Golden West following the war, ultimately settling in the Downey-Norwalk-Artesia area, a region known as the Los Nietos Valley. Upon his death in 1909, Miller, entitled to military honors for his service, was laid to rest at Artesia Cemetery in Cerritos and forgotten, buried in an unmarked grave for over 100 years. For Loran Bures, commander of Gen. W.S. Rosecrans Camp No. 2, the local branch of the national, fraternal organization, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the grave is just the latest discovered by the group, which utilizes all of its resources to ensure no Civil War veteran's grave goes unmarked. "For us it's a sacred obligation…one grave at a time," Bures said. "Since there's no marker here, it probably means Corporal Miller didn't receive his military funeral honors - 102 years is inexcusable." After more than a century without proper recognition, Miller finally received his full military honors earlier this month during a celebratory dedication service in Cerritos where the Ohio native was awarded an honorary headstone from the Department of Veteran's Affairs. With community leaders, local citizens and Miller's own descendants in attendance, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War hosted a special service, which included the same rites and rituals performed 100 years ago during veterans' funerals. While dressed in full Civil War-era regalia, members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War provided a glimpse back into late 1800s. Hoisting sturdy muskets into the air, the patriotic troop fired their guns during a three-volley salute, while women laid floral wreaths and small flags around the pearly white headstone. Assisted by the Millikan High School Army JROTC and members of the Mayfair High School Marching Corps, the group recited sober poems and prayers in Miller's memory. City officials from both Artesia and Cerritos attended the ceremony on April 9, celebrating the life of Miller, who served in the 118th Illinois Infantry, which protected the outer limits of Union territories from Confederate soldiers during the war. Mayor Carol Chen of Cerritos expressed her gratitude to past military veterans, but also called on the community to remember those currently serving in the armed forces. "Without the sacrifice of people like Corporal Miller, we could not be here today," she said. "This is a long overdue recognition…let us continue to pay tribute to all of those who have served our country." Founded in 1881, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) is a non-profit organization officially recognized as the legal representatives of the original Civil War veterans, who formed a political organization after the war known as the Grand Army of the Republic. Today, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War oversees the grave sites of thousands of Civil War veterans, making sure each plot has a headstone to honor the national heroes. "Thousands of Civil War veterans came out here after the war. There are 10,000 Civil War interments in Los Angeles County alone," said Thomas Chumley, a retired federal investigator and SUVCW member. "We want to get everyone catalogued and recorded while identifying unmarked graves, and headstones that are missing or damaged." After the organization discovered the unmarked grave in Artesia Cemetery, Chumley, who has a background in genealogical research, was commissioned to track down the descendants of John Miller, something he considers more of an art than a science. "It was challenging - Miller is the third most common last name in the country so it didn't happen overnight," he said with a laugh. "It just took good, old-fashioned research. We were fortunate in Miller's case that we had the unit records." Using pension, census and military records, hospital reports, enrollment sheets and information provided by the LA County registrar's office, Chumley was finally able to uncover Miller's family tree. After nearly two weeks of research, it was an old phone number that put Chumley in contact with John Miller's great grandson, Everett Miller. "It was just a cold phone call. I asked, 'Is your father's name, blah blah, and was your grandfather named, so-and-so? Man, have I got a deal for you,'" Chumley said. Taken aback by the call, Everett Miller was hesitant to verify his family information with Chumley, worried that the call could be a scam. "I didn't understand Tom at first. I was thinking, 'Okay, how much is this going to cost me,'" said Miller, 59, who lives in Yucaipa. "But I started to realize, this is not a sales call. He sent me a history of my family and told me all of this would be going on. I'm excited to see everyone here honoring a man who contributed so much to this country." In honor of his great grandfather's military service, Miller and his family were presented several resolutions, along with a U.S. flag that was flown over the U.S. Capital building on the anniversary of John Miller's death, March 29. The family also received a special certificate of congressional recognition, presented by Congressman Bobby Schilling of Illinois, where Miller enlisted and served in the Union army. Towards the close of the service, as the trumpet played softly, heads were bowed and eyes closed as the voice of the lowly minister exclaimed, "Taps are sounded, lights are out, the soldier sleeps." After nearly 100 years in the shadows, John Miller is forgotten no more.

********** Published: May 5, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 3