By Lindsay Steele and Chris Umscheid
For The Catholic Messenger
SOLON — Civil War veteran Joseph Kohout may have been all but forgotten, 146 years after his interment. His headstone in St. Mary Cemetery, weathered and broken, was the only tangible reminder that he had lived.
Kohout was born around 1844 in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1854. They settled in Monticello. In 1872, he married Antonie Schimbersky in Western Township (Linn County), but died four years later in September 1876.
LeAnn Hugeback, secretary of St. Mary Parish Cemetery Committee, noticed Kohout’s tombstone during a routine safety sweep in July. The cemetery is not a perpetual care cemetery, which means the parish does not have funds to maintain and replace headstones. She identifies headstones that have become safety hazards and contacts descendants in hopes that they will volunteer to repair the headstones of their loved ones or pay for repair or replacement.
“These burials and headstones represent a person who was once living,” she said. “People who loved and were loved. Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, grandparents who tried to live their best faith-filled lives. … It breaks my heart to see headstones lying face down in the soil or falling to pieces. I know that most of these are in this condition because the family is ‘extinct’ in our parish and the descendants of these people are just not aware of the condition of the headstones.”
Kohout’s tombstone wasn’t necessarily a safety hazard but “looked like Cookie Monster had bitten out of it.” Hugeback, an Air Force veteran, learned through research that Kohout was a Civil War veteran, and she wanted to honor him properly. She figured someone in the parish must be a descendent because several parishioners bear the Kohout name. However, none of them knew of him.
Hugeback began a journey to learn more about Kohout’s life with encouragement from parish staff and the pastor, Father Charles Fladung. She discovered Kohout enlisted in the Union Army as a private Aug. 14, 1862, and began service a month later as a member of Company H, 31st Regiment of the Iowa Infantry. He mustered out on June 27, 1865. Through letters home to his family, and diary entries, it appeared that Company H was at the siege and surrender of Vicksburg, and was part of William Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign.
Kohout also mentions Helena, Arkansas (February 1863); moving to Young’s Point, Louisiana; becoming ill and being taken to a hospital in Memphis. After recovering, he rejoined the 31st in
Vicksburg (April 25, 1863). The surrender happened July 4, 1863. From there Kohout and the 31st advanced on Jackson, Mississippi, among many other battles before the regiment disbanded in 1865 after cessation of hostilities.
He returned to Monticello where in 1874/1875 he purchased land in Johnson County. He died from “a disease contracted in the service,” according to documentation, quite possibly from dysentery, Hugeback believes. Kohout had no living descendants. His wife remarried after his death and his two daughters died in early adulthood. Hugeback also discovered that Kohout never received a military headstone.
With help from a Jones County history buff and the Iowa City Veterans Administration, she applied for and received an initial issue Civil War headstone. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, through the National Cemetery Administration, provides burial benefits including a government headstone or marker, at no cost to the family, Hugeback said. The new, historically correct headstone bears his name, Co. H, and “31 Iowa Inf.” in recognition of his military service. Memorials by Michel in Solon placed the headstone in the cemetery last month.
The parish covered the cost of removing the previous headstone. Part of that headstone will get a new home in the American Legion Hall in Solon. Members of Solon American Legion Stinocher Post 460 provided a brief memorial service Oct. 22 for their brother veteran. “We were honored to play a small role during the dedication of the new headstone,” said Doug Thompson, chaplain of the Solon Legion and a member of St. Mary Parish. Legion members played taps and led a 21-gun salute. Thompson read a prayer he wrote for the occasion. Father Fladung could not attend the dedication because of a scheduling conflict but blessed the stone later that day.
Several descendants of Kohout’s sister, Anna, attended the service, including Tiffany Halvorson of Monticello. She had been doing genealogical research after visiting the family graves in Jones County and compared notes with LeAnn to fill in some of the blanks in the family tree and history. “She was very excited to show me her family chart and explain how she was related, through Joseph’s only living sister,” Hugeback said. Halvorson is Anna’s third-great grandchild.
Thompson appreciates Hugeback’s dedication. “Because of her efforts, the plight of Joseph Kohout’s headstone was brought to light and she was able to locate his distant relatives.”
“It was my pleasure and privilege to bring him to light again and get him the honor and recognition he deserves,” Hugeback said.
Learn more about Kohout
Joseph Kohout’s diaries and letters to his family have been digitized. A download of the documents is available at https://www.civilwardigital.com/html/diaries3.html. Search for Joseph KOHOUT.
(Chris Umscheid is the editor of the Solon Economist.)