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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: Phone call leads family to find hero in its ranks

Sunday, October 08, 2000

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday..

Joseph McCauslin fought valiantly in the Civil War, then returned to West Virginia's Northern Panhandle to raise children, sheep and cows and apparently live life without much reference to his wartime heroics.

So when his great-granddaughter Eleanor Bland, of the Elm Grove section of Wheeling, W. Va., answered her phone in August, she received unexpected but exhilarating news.

Tom Milliken of West Alexander informed her that McCauslin, a private with Company D of the 12th West Virginia Infantry, had received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery in 1865.

He was cited for "conspicuous gallantry as color bearer in the assault on Fort Gregg near St. Petersburg, Va."

"I had no inkling, no idea, nothing, so we were just ecstatic," Eleanor said. "I didn't know what to do." But it didn't take her long to get rolling.

Her husband, Frank Bland, said it sent her into a research frenzy to get more information about her great-grandfather, who died in 1906. His obituary called him a prominent citizen and stated he had received the Medal of Honor.

But subsequent generations of McCauslins never related the news, leaving Eleanor's generation in the dark about their grand family history.

"She's had more pep after this than she's had in six years," her husband said. "It's unbelievable, but we knew it was true, because her nephew has the medal."

Yesterday, a ceremony was scheduled at the West Alexander Cemetery -- several miles from McCauslin's former farm -- where McCauslin and his family are buried.

The ceremony is part of a county program to commemorate the seven Medal of Honor recipients buried in Washington County cemeteries.

A granite memorial was placed just inside the cemetery entrance to announce McCauslin is buried there. In his case, a small limestone gravestone noting he was with Company D marks his grave site, and a later gravestone with his name and birth and death dates, 1840-1906, marks the foot of his grave.

But what sent Eleanor, veterans organizations and historians scrambling in advance of the ceremony yesterday was the lack of specifics about why McCauslin received the award.

Maj. Lew Irwin of the Army Reserves and a professor of public policy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh said it's difficult, if not impossible, to get precise details about McCauslin's acts of gallantry.

But he offered several clues as to why McCauslin may have received the honor. Simply, he was a private, a color bearer and engaged in a battle near the end of the Civil War.

Irwin said there was a lot of importance associated with the color bearer -- the soldier out front carrying "Old Glory" and running forward without defense into the face of enemy fire.

The color bearer usually was a soldier of low rank but considered brave and responsible. He was important because the flag he carried was the focal point for the regiment following him. But it also proved to be the focal point of enemy resistance. That's because the flag was the key to field communications. It indicated whether the line was moving forward, stopped or retreating on a chaotic battlefield where cannon fire was exploding, muskets were blazing, and bodies were flying and falling under clouds of thick smoke.

Because of the importance of the flag to the movement of the regiment, the enemy's goal was to stop the other army's progress and demoralize and confuse its troops with ultimate hopes of capturing the opponent's flag.

Accounts of the Battle of Fort Gregg in April 1865 indicate four color bearers were killed in battle, so perhaps McCauslin, with little regard for his own safety, took up the flag and led the regiment.

Irwin said those color bearers who beat the odds and survived often had their uniforms riddled with bullet holes and rarely kept their hats on.

"Yet then, as always, somebody had to stand up, to be the point of the spear, to lead other men through a horrible situation and to maintain the momentum of the attack in some of the bloodiest and must brutal fighting that this continent has ever seen," he said.

That McCauslin was a private also is significant. Federal officers awarded the nation's highest award for bravery to a lowly private only if it was well deserved, Irwin said.

The fact that the Battle of Fort Gregg was fought in the last weeks of the war also is notable because the war at that point was full of confusion, desperation and exhaustion that prompted "bestial" fighting by both sides.

"The one thing they could rally around was that flag, and if they see that the flag had stopped, they might stop the attack," Irwin said. "So when in an attack, the flag goes forward or the attack fails. It had to be someone of uncommon bravery to pick up that flag."

Despite continuing efforts to research her great-grandfather's role in the Battle of Fort Gregg, Eleanor Bland has turned up few details but continues to comb through Civil War histories.

Part of the problem lies with her great-grandfather.

After the Civil War, he returned to the West Liberty area of West Virginia and lived with his wife, Barbara Dixon McCauslin, on a farm several miles from West Alexander.

No one ever told Eleanor's generation about his bravery in the final days of the Civil War. She suspects her father knew about it, but in his final years he was too sick to discuss family history. Her father, however, did give a cousin the actual Medal of Honor, but no one knew its importance. So in time, the medal ended up in box of junk.

After Eleanor received the call that revealed her great-grandfather's bravery, she called the cousin, and he found the medal in good condition. Now it has been preserved in a frame and will serve as a family heirloom.

"I've always been proud of my heredity, but this makes me even more so," Eleanor said.

Ed Snarey of Bridgeville worked with Chuck Pollacci, Washington County director of veteran affairs, to spearhead a program to commemorate Medal of Honor recipients buried in the county.

The ceremony for the McCauslin memorial just inside the cemetery entrance marks the fifth one placed in county cemeteries, with plans to hold celebrations Oct. 28 for John Pinder, a Medal of Honor recipient during World War II, who is buried in Florence.

The final ceremony, possibly on Veterans Day, will honor Capt. Hugh Boone, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Civil War, buried at Washington Cemetery.

Organizers hope the granite monuments will emblazon into the public consciousness the names of local war heroes and what they accomplished so they never will be forgotten.

"Self-sacrifice was what they were least concerned about," said Pat Maggi, a social science teacher at the McGuffey Intermediate School who helped organize the West Alexander Cemetery commemoration. "They were willing to pay the ultimate price. I hope this will make people aware of what they did."

David Templeton can be reached by e-mail at:

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