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Erie Cemetery ceremony honors Civil War veterans on traditional Decoration Day

1st Lt. John W. Van Natta

By RON LEONARDI | Erie Times-News, Pa. | Published: May 31, 2019

ERIE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Rifle volleys and booming cannon fire reverberated through Erie Cemetery early Thursday evening.

A bugler sounded taps, and the sounds of "Amazing Grace" from a bagpiper filled the air.

Historical re-enactors marched through the 75-acre cemetery at 2116 Chestnut Street, stopping to honor the passing of several Erie-area Civil War veterans on Decoration Day, which is traditionally observed on May 30.

The ceremony featured the dedication of a new grave marker for 1st Lt. John W. Van Natta, a member of the famed 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Van Natta fought in more than 18 Civil War battles, was twice wounded, captured by Confederates, and, after the war, was the leading pension attorney in the Erie area, assisting veterans in securing pension funds. He was 77 when he died in June 1913.

Retired Erie ironworker Gary Montgomery attended the ceremony to honor Van Natta, his great-great grandfather.

Montgomery and his longtime friend, Edinboro resident Doug Cook, helped secure a grave marker for Van Natta through the Veterans Administration. The marker, noting his military service, arrived earlier this spring.

"People can come and visit it now," said Montgomery, 68, a Millcreek Township resident. "I looked for it years ago and there was no stone. I feel pride. Everybody can see it now. I don't know if he had military honors before, but I bet he's up in heaven seeing this now and he likes it."

Attired in Civil War uniforms, members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War branch based in Mercer marched to the graves of the Erie Civil War veterans, joined by unformed members of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Re-enactors Regiment, the 150th PVI Bucktail Regiment, the 111th PVI Regiment, and the 10th PVI Regiment.

At each grave site, a descendant of the veteran, or a historical re-enactor, spoke briefly about the veteran and his Civil War service. That was followed by military honors with rifle volleys, cannon fire, and the playing of taps and Amazing Grace.

About 100 people attended the 1-hour, 15-minute ceremony.

"These ceremonies connect us to our Civil War heritage," said Tim Bennett, secretary of the Mercer branch of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. "People have forgotten a lot. There's so much we really owe to them from the 1860s."

Erie-region Civil War veterans who were honored at Thursday's ceremony were:

  • John W. Van Natta, a sergeant and first lieutenant with Company C of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment.

  • Brigadier Gen. Strong Vincent, 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps. Strong Vincent was mortally wounded while defending the strategically important Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

  • Col. John W. McLane, a veteran of the Mexican and Civil wars. McLane formed and led the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry. He was killed in action in Virginia at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

  • Sgt. James Jordan, Company K, 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

  • Pvt. Eugene Jordan, Company D, 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

  • Cpl. William Cook, Company C., 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment.

The 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment was an elite unit composed of men from Erie County and northwestern Pennsylvania, and was one of three Erie-area units — along with the 111th Regiment and the 145th Regiment — that fought extensively in the Civil War.

Formed in September 1861 under the command of McLane, the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment was regarded as one of the Civil War's premier Union regiments. The unit suffered the second-highest number of battle deaths of any unit in the Union Army.

The original 83rd Volunteer Infantry was composed of about 1,000 soldiers from Erie, Crawford and Forest counties. Regimental numbers meant the order in which a regiment was accepted into Pennsylvania service. Its officers included Strong Vincent.

About 1,800 men served in the regiment through the war. At the end of the Civil War, the regiment was down to about 200 men.

Major Civil War battles in which the 83rd Regiment fought were Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Laurel Hill, North Anna and Petersburg (the siege and six battles).

Doug Cook, 66, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Mercer branch, delivered a short speech honoring his great-great grandfather, William Cook.

William Cook served with the 83rd Pennsylvania regiment from 1861 through 1864, fought in numerous battles and was never wounded, Doug Cook said. William Cook died in 1909. He was 69.

"The amazing thing is he made it through three years without getting injured at all," Doug Cook said. "I don't know much more about him, but being related to him is really special. This ceremony meant the world to me. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing for me, and I don't know if you'll ever see another event like this at this cemetery again."

Doug Cook and Montgomery, who worked together for years as ironworkers, learned within the last year that their great-great grandfathers served together in the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry's Company C and were friends.

Corry resident and re-enactor Tom Hansen portrayed and discussed Strong Vincent during Thursday's ceremony. Paul Baltzer, a member of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Re-enactors, paid homage to McLane.

The Jordan brothers are ancestors of Erie County Historical Society Executive Director George Deutsch, who spoke about their service.

"What we do is keep history alive," Doug Cook said. "I'm almost speechless. Gary and I worked side by side as ironworkers and we didn't even know until this year that both our great-great grandfathers were in the 83rd Regiment together and were both in Company C. My Civil War family being here is what made this special. This ceremony brought tears to my eyes."

©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)
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