"This morning I took my own field trip to Camp Butler. If you have never been there, I highly recommend it. It is on the National Registry of Historical Places and it dates back to 1861 when the War Department dispatched General William Tecumseh Sherman to Springfield to select a site for a military training camp. Illinois Governor Yates tasked the state treasurer William Butler with assisting General Sherman. The men selected the area outside of Springfield because of its high ground for camping and a lower, more level area for drills and training, as well as space for a cemetery.
The first troops arrived at Camp Butler in August 1861 and numbered 5000 within a month. Camp Butler also became a POW camp housing 2000 Confederate soldiers captured when Fort Donelson was surrendered. Almost immediately, because of little food, smallpox, typhus and pneumonia POWs died at a rapid rate. Many of them are buried there. Along with soldiers who fought for both the Union and the Confederate sides during the Civil War, veterans who lost their lives in the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery.
All the men and women who died in service to our country are notable. But the Camp Butler website mentions two that are unique in other ways. One is John Hugh Catherwood, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery as a Seaman with the US Navy during the “Action against Phillipine Outlaws” in 1911. Part of the citation for is MOH says, he charged 20 enemy coming out of from concealed positions, he was struck down instantly by outlaws deadly fire, unable to rise he still came to the defense of his leader and fought desperately to beat off the hostile attack. He actually lived through that attack and died 19 years later. His son Alfred, who also served in the Navy, is buried next to him.
Also, buried at Camp Butler is Lt. Col. Otis Duncan. He is the highest ranking African American to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in WWI. Duncan came from a prominent black family in Springfield. His father was Abraham Lincoln’s barber and friend. He joined the Illinois National Guard as an Infantry Officer and served with his regiment during the US Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916.
In a letter to his mother 'We had a fine time Thanksgiving day. Held services at regimental headquarters. Singing, preaching and prayer, and I tell you mother, we had much to be thankful for. To have survived this war in which we have been engaged, is nothing else but a blessing from God and we realize it fully. General Vincendon, French commander of our division, was present and after the religious services, we presented him with our regimental colors and I made the presentation speech. Will tell you all about it when I get home.'
In addition to his military service, Duncan worked for more than 20 years in the office of the Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction. He also was active in Republican politics in Springfield, running twice (in 1898 and 1906) for alderman in the First Ward.
Camp Butler is a national veteran cemetery, but Memorial Day is a commemoration of those who died during war. On my visit to the cemetery today, I walked past many a headstone with dates of death in the middle of wartime. Their stories are unknown to us. But the date of death, June 6, 1944, on headstone of F1C Leonard Janowicz tells us he most likely lost his life during the Normandy invasion. And CPL William Challender who died on January 9, 1945 probably lost his life fighting at the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge.
It is important we always keep Memorial 'Decoration” Day' as a national holiday commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep up free."