Sgt. Thomas Horan, Union Army

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series.

Thomas Horan served with the Union Army in the Civil War. His rank with Company E 72nd New York Infantry Regiment was Sgt E-5. He fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Thomas Horan enlisted in Dunkirk at St Mary’s Hall on May 28th, 1861. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 5, 1898.

The battle of Gettysburg

On July 2, 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg, Sgt. Horan was taking part in Longstreet’s assault while supporting Pickett’s charge of July 2. On the battlefield, Sgt. Horan’s unit took 176 men into the assault. At the day’s end, the unit saw 73 wounded, 11 missing in action, and 17 killed. While in this charge, Sgt. Horan captured the Regimental Flag of Florida’s 8th Regiment Infantry, a feat which would earn him the nation’s highest award.

Capturing a unit’s

regimental flag

Civil War soldiers placed great importance onto the flags of their regiment. Soldiers would sacrifice their life defending their regimental flag to protect and defend it from capture from the enemy. The devotion to the regimental flag wasn’t merely emotional. Regimental flags played an important part in Civil War battles. Soldiers strongly felt that their regimental flag represented their families and the state in which they were from. Many soldiers felt it was their loyalty to protect and guide it. It also gave them great pride to see the regimental flag flying freely.

Regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles. They marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield. Many times in battle, surrounded by smoke and noise, it was easy for the soldiers of the regiment to be scattered. Multiple commands, even bugles blowing, at times could not be heard. A visual rallying point was essential. All soldiers were trained to follow their regimental flag.

The soldier carrying the regimental flag was called the Color Bearer. He was considered a man of great distinction. It required a soldier of extraordinary bravery and total discipline. The regimental color bearer carried the regimental flag where the regimental officers directed it to go. Color bearers had to face the enemy under enemy fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy unarmed and could never break down or retreat. If this were ever to happen, the entire regiment might follow.

The loss of your regimental flag was a colossal disgrace. It would bring shame and dishonor to the soldiers from its regiment. Many times in battle, the number one target of your enemy would be your enemy’s Color Bearer. Simply having your enemy’s regimental flag in the heat of the battle could turn the tide of the battle’s victory in your favor.

Having no official resting place

In the early ’70s, I was participating in a Memorial Day placing of the flags at each and every veteran’s gravesite. While at St. Mary’s Cemetery, I was amazed when I came across graves of veterans whose names had some special attachment to the city of Dunkirk.

Passing a grave of a veteran, I noticed the headstone had been cracked and in pieces. After placing the pieces together, I noticed that this was a grave of John T. Murray, the serviceman that a local veterans’ club was named after. I was concerned that this veteran, who had paid the ultimate price, was not given a respectable gravesite.

Wanting to do something about this, I contacted the cemetery’s person in charge. After pointing out to him the way I had seen the gravesite of John T. Murray, I had asked what the club named after him could do to give this man a final respectable resting place, a place that would show him honor and respect for what he had done. Giving me the go-ahead as to what could and could not be done, it wasn’t long before the officers of John T. Murray Post 1017 gave me the go-ahead to purchase a 3- by 8-foot bronze grave marker to be mounted on a newly poured concrete slab that was donated by Mr. Dennis Pacos of the Pacos Construction Co. of Dunkirk. The club spared no expense to honor its veteran.

It was at the dedication of this gravesite of John T. Murray that I received information. Along with all these wonderful veterans that are laid to rest in the cemetery, there actually is a Medal of Honor winner from Dunkirk that is listed as buried here in the cemetery. When asked to see the gravesite, I was told that because of records lost and with some confusion in moving bodies from another cemetery, the actual spot of Thomas Horan’s remains is not known for sure. I was then taken into the maintenance barn where all the equipment for maintaining the cemetery was.

When we entered, my guide pointed to a locker. On the top of the locker were about 10 to 15 boxes, each containing a veteran’s military grave marker in them. On the bottom of the stack, he pulled out a box and showed me a cracked grave marker for Mr. Thomas Horan. Opening the box and seeing the words “Medal Of Honor” sent a shiver down my spine. I know what price the person who won the Medal Of Honor had paid. When asked how something like this could happen, the groundskeeper said it was common due to the way things were done and the way some of the records were kept. I asked, “What can I do to have this man honored and have his grave site receive the respect it deserves?”

It was really hard for me to understand how something as important as this that needs to be done at times cannot be done. The first thing I needed to do was to get this grave marker replaced with a new one. After finding out as much information as I could, I actually contacted graves registration in Washington, D.C. and explained to them the situation I had. I was surprised when four weeks later, a military grave marker for Medal of Honor winner Thomas Horan was delivered to my home in Fredonia.

Knowing that I was at the same place the cemetery was with his grave marker, I now needed to get permission to have this marker displayed at his gravesite. I contacted the pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Dunkirk. I explained the problem I had. I was taken down and shown all the cemetery’s legal paper work. When asked if we could just place this grave marker at the cemetery, I was advised that unless the parish and cemetery knew and could confirm the actual spot of the gravesite, that they could not and would not place the grave marker there. St. Mary’s had claimed that there were countless hours spent trying to locate the actual spot. The pastor has the responsibility to make sure he does everything in his power to make sure no graves are mismarked. After spending many hours trying to get the actual gravesite of this fallen hero, I realized it wasn’t going to be. I’ve heard countless stories of where it is – stories that Thomas was buried at another location, stories of the cemetery that was under Dunkirk High school and stories of the cemetery for those who were lost in Lake Erie.

With the help of Mr. Richard Lawson at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, and various military organizations and the approval of St. Mary’s Parish, an understanding was reached. If the gravesite of Thomas Horan is ever confirmed, the grave marker will then be taken from the Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum and placed at this hero’s gravesite.