TRAVERSE CITY — Editor's note: Third of a three-part series on the Civil War, which began 150 years ago.
Even unidentified Civil War graves have stories, if you know where to look.
Chris Czopek discovered a whole body of long buried and forgotten Michigan Indian and Civil War history mostly by "browsing" the state library, though he's done a lot of hiking through cemeteries, too.
Czopek is author of "Who Was Who in Company K," a 224-page book, self-published last year, that documents for the first time individual accounts of 139 American-Indian marksmen who served in Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters.
The company was the only all-American Indian unit in the Union Army east of the Mississippi River. About half of the mostly Odawa men were recruited from native villages stretching along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Pentwater to the Mackinac Straits.
If you ask Czopek what possessed him to spend 15 years tracking down military records and graves of 139 Michigan Indians who fought in the Civil War, he might give you his two-word answer:
"Johnny Shiloh."As in the 1963 Walt Disney made-for-TV movie about a Union Army drummer boy in the Civil War. It was based on a true-life story about Johnny Clem, a 10-year-old Ohio boy who ran away from home and tagged along with the Michigan 22nd Infantry until he was allowed to enlist at age 13. Czopek saw the film when he was 9 years old and has been a Civil War buff ever since.
He stumbled across Company K in 1994 after joining the Lansing chapter of the Sons of Union Army Veterans Civil War, and volunteering to help with the group's Civil War grave registration project because he lived closed to state archives and also was trained and worked in records research during his six-year stint in the Army.
One Saturday afternoon he decided to drive to the Battle Creek area in Calhoun County on a "research expedition." He stopped on the way at a gas station near Athens, not far from a Potawatomi Indian reservation and learned about a Civil War grave at a nearby old Indian mission church cemetery.
The information changed his life.
He went to the cemetery, found Thomas Wesaw's grave and took a picture of the military gravestone that included the words "Co. K, 1 Mich SS." Back in Lansing, however, he could find no record of Company K, the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, in state archives. Wesaw's grave couldn't be registered unless Czopek verified his military records. About the same time, the SUVCW grave registration project was turning up other Company K military record verification requests.
"I realized I had stumbled onto a discovery and that this was an open field waiting to be explored," Czopek said.
Someone suggested he take an 8-by-10-inch picture of the marker to the upcoming Jackson Cascades Civil War Muster and ask 1,000 people if they knew anything about Company K. The annual muster is the biggest Civil War reenactor event in the Midwest and attracts thousands.
"It sounded crazy, but I decided to give it a try," he said. "Bingo. A reenactor in the 24th Michigan infantry remembered hearing about an all-Indian company from Raymond Herek, another reenactor. It turned out he had researched the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters for a master's thesis many years before."
Czopek wrote Herek a letter full of questions, and the two started corresponding. The rest is history rediscovered.
Herek's 561-page book, "These Men Have Seen Hard Service: A History of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civil War," was published by Wayne State University in 1998.
He spent more than a quarter-century researching the 1,300-man sharpshooter regiment after noticing five Indian Civil War graves in Lakeview Cemetery near Harbor Springs, his wife's hometown. All had belonged to Company K, of the Michigan 1st Sharpshooters.
Herek's book focuses on the whole regiment's history, the battles it served in and the politics surrounding its creation in 1862-1863 to provide more skilled marksmen to Michigan's Union forces. Company K is woven throughout it.
"Mine focuses on the individual soldiers in Company K," Czopek said.
"Who Was Who in Company K?" devotes a page to each Indian sharpshooter and the seven officers, all white except Lt. Garrett Graveraet, the son of Odawa Sophie Bailley and white fur trader Henry Graveraet.
Each page contains the name of the soldier, his tribe, what happened to him during the war and after, burial spot, wounds and injuries, if Czopek could find all the records. Information comes from enlistment, death, military pension, medical and prison documents, cemetery records and in some cases newspapers, obituaries, diaries and local histories. It also lists page numbers of Herek's book, if the soldier is mentioned in it.
Indian's names often were spelled many ways during that era, and Czopek includes all names he found in records for each individual. The highest number of different spellings was 25 for James Arwonogezic, of Pentwater.
Overall, Czopek found records for 58 graves. Almost all have military gravestones.
He is still looking for 75 unknown graves but expects to only find about five or 10 more.
"The new discoveries will all be buried under misspelled names," he said.
He also found two unmarked graves in Maple Lawn in Boyne City. The first was John Jacko three years ago, followed by William Isaacs a year ago. Robert Finch Camp 14 of the Sons of Union Veterans Civil War will place markers and dedicate them in a special funeral to honor both veterans May 7.
He did records research on the 15 Company K men who were captured and imprisoned in Andersonville, Ga. Seven died there of starvation and disease. Several members of the Mount Pleasant-based Ogitchedaw Veterans and Warrior Society traveled to the National Park at Andersonville to conduct a special ceremony in May 2010.
Czopek, who traveled with the group, will talk about that trip and Company K on June 16 at the Northport Area History Association meeting.
His book retails for $80 and is sold at Horizon Books. It is also available for $60 from Czopek's website, http://RedOak1863.homestead.com.