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Civil War veteran's grave gets headstone after nearly 151 years

By ERIC SCICCHITANO | The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. | Published: October 13, 2018

LEWISBURG (Tribune News Service) — The grave of a Civil War veteran buried in the Lewisburg Cemetery is unmarked no more.

The cemetery's president unearthed Army records and an obituary to prove it was Corporal Milton Airey buried without a headstone between the marked graves of his brothers. As the 151st anniversary of his death approaches, a marble Civil War headstone is now in place for the late soldier.

"I discovered that for generations, Milton Airey has been confused with his brother, William," Nancy Neuman said.

A dedication ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday. The service starts at the cemetery chapel and will move to the grave. Pastor John Lee will portray Civil War Chaplain William McCormick of the 150th Regiment, Bucktails, in conducting the service.

"I'm going to do it just like I was interring somebody now. We're going to end up with the exact words of a military funeral from the 1860 soldier's prayer book," Lee said.

Discovery made

There are two Airey brothers buried on either side of Milton: William on the left and Barton on the right. For whatever reason, Milton Airey didn't get a headstone as his brothers had.

Neuman studied the lives of six black Civil War soldiers buried at Lewisburg Cemetery for a presentation she gave to the Union County Historical Society in honor of Black History Month in February. That's when she discovered three Airey brothers but only two marked graves. Existing records at the cemetery along with the county Veterans Affairs' and ancestral records she found were "all mixed up" concerning the burial.

Neuman turned to military records in the public library and online and studied books that included accounts of Company A of the 43rd U.S. Colored Infantry, in which Milton and Barton both enlisted on Feb. 20, 1864, according to military records Neuman studied.

What she didn't have access to were Airey's discharge documents. She got lucky. A man who attended her presentation just so happened to be traveling to the National Archives and obtained copies plus hospitalization records and other documents on Neuman's behalf.

Wounded in battle

Milton Airey is described in Army documents as having been born in Lancaster and, at the time of enlistment in Lewisburg, was a farmer.

William Airey purchased Lot 51 in the Lewisburg Cemetery three months after his brothers joined the Army. He was a barber, working in a shop in the basement of the Lewisburg Hotel, Neuman said. On Feb. 25, 1865, William himself joined the Army but in a different infantry regiment: Company A of the 24th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Milton Airey suffered a gunshot wound on July 30, 1864, that required the amputation of his right thumb and cost him part of the base of his wrist, hospital records state. An Army discharge document says he was wounded in action at the charge before Petersburg, Va. – The Battle of the Crater.

Barton Airey died July 31, 1864, at De Camp General Hospital in New York, Neuman said. He was transferred there from Virginia. He was 22. Neuman said he was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in New York City. However, his sisters petitioned the Union County Orphans Court for guardianship which was eventually bestowed to William Airey. Neuman isn't certain how or when Barton Airey's remains were transferred to Lewisburg, only that his grave has a headstone and burial record.

Milton Airey's enlistment ended with stays in military hospitals including L'Ouverture General Hospital in Alexandria, Va. After previously having been denied and instead recommended for hospital duty, he was approved for discharge on June 22, 1865, and a return to Lewisburg.

An obituary published in the Lewisburg Chronicle on Oct. 25, 1867, said Milton Airey died of pulmonary disease, "the seeds of which were sown while fighting for the disenthrallment of his brethren." He was 27. The obituary notes he was buried in his uniform. While it states his rank as a private, military records show he had been promoted to corporal.

'Took quite a while'

Neuman took the evidence she collected to the Union County Veterans' Affairs office in March. She believes a lack of documentation on William Airey led to confusion over the years that the "Wm. Airey" marked on the headstone was Milton.

Neuman said she'd never undertaken such an effort before. Lee had. It was a case with less complication, though. He said he helped obtain a veteran's marker for a Civil War nurse buried locally. She already had a tombstone.

"It took quite a while to convince them this mixup actually happened," Neuman said of Veterans' Affairs.

The office agreed and in June, had a marble headstone shipped to the cemetery. Neuman was thrilled. Her research admittedly turned to obsession. She opened the box.

"It was cracked," Neuman said. "I had to order another one."

In July, the headstone arrived unbroken. It was placed between the original Airey brother headstones on the cemetery's edge just steps from Saint Catherine Street marking that, after nearly 151 years, Milton Airey lay at rest beneath.

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