View Full Version : Mission at Gettysburg Back From Iraq

07-14-03, 08:56 AM
Mission at Gettysburg
Back From Iraq, a Marine Lays a Civil War Mystery to Rest

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2003; Page A01

GETTYSBURG, Pa., July 13 -- The dead soldier, to be sure, remains quite dead.

But Chuck Ikins, the living and breathing soldier, kept trying to prove that the dead soldier was his dead soldier, his great-great-uncle Simeon Ikins.

The people at Gettysburg National Cemetery told Ikins that his Uncle Simeon was, indeed, buried there. They pleasantly pointed him over to a grave site.

The stone at Grave No. 119, however, read "J.C. Kent."

Who was J.C. Kent?

A ghost, as it turns out.

So for four years, the ballad of J.C. Kent became the ballad of Chuck Ikins. In order for Chuck Ikins to find his lost relative from the Civil War, he had to comb medical records, riffle through papers at the National Archives, sift Union Army regimental rosters and unravel the mysteries of Civil War-era handwriting. Then there was a pause in the action as Lt. Col. Chuck Ikins packed his gear and headed to Iraq.

For a war of his own.

He was in the desert when the riddle got solved. When the soldier who had died at Gettysburg was finally given his true name.

He was just one soldier. But why can't one soldier give resonance to the battle that took place 140 years ago this month? He died at the battlefield hospital. Lincoln's granite-like words would have floated out over him a mere three months later during the Gettysburg Address. ("It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.") It was the battle that signaled the beginning of the end.

And in the end, there appeared a ghost.

But all of that is getting ahead of the unraveling of the mystery of J.C. Kent, which, although it ended here today, actually began with a man who sold used cars in rural Ohio.

Visit to a Graveyard

Chuck Ikins is sitting at the living room table of his home in Alexandria. His research on his great-great-Uncle Simeon is scattered about. On the floor nearby is a large case of materials that Ikins needed for his role as a Marine officer in Iraq. Above that, there's a daguerreotype from a reunion of the 136th Regiment of New York Volunteers, Uncle Simeon's regiment. Sober-looking men. Simeon is not in the photo.

"He was lost to the family," Chuck Ikins says of Simeon Ikins. "That's the interesting part of the story: how we found him."

Chuck's father, Thomas Clifford Ikins, sold used cars in Barberton, Ohio. He also collected antiques. "You know the daguerreotypes, the cases for them? My dad was buying the cases when no one was buying them." Ikins traveled around Ohio with his father. Down long curvy roads, crisscrossing farmland. "I spent my childhood going to antique shows with my dad," says Ikins. "My dad was a sort of Renaissance man -- and a car salesman."

The cars got sold and the antiques got bought. At the dinner table while growing up there was talk of long-ago wars. Ikins became fixated on family lineage. "I remember people saying we had an ancestor who had died at Gettysburg. But it was always, like, myth."

He went to Ohio State University, was in ROTC, gulped history down. He discovered the name Simeon Ikins while he was looking for his great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Ikins. As he explains: "Thomas Ikins had several sons. William, one son, is my great-great-grandfather. His brother, Simeon, is my great-great-uncle. William had a son, William Frederick Ikins, who would be my great-grandfather. He had a son, George, my grandfather. George had a son, who would be Thomas, my father."

In 1998, sending out questions on a genealogical Web site, Chuck Ikins heard from Marilyn Hillison, who lives outside Joliet, Ill. "My mother's grandfather was Joseph Ikins, Simeon's brother," said Hillison, who had been doing research into her family's genealogy, particularly its Irish roots.

She shared all her information about Thomas Ikins. Then he had a question: "Do you know anything about Simeon Ikins?"

She knew plenty. He had served and died in the Civil War. He served with a regiment out of New York state. "That was it!" Ikins says.

"See, I had been writing Gettysburg for years. I probably passed within 100 yards of his grave without even knowing it."

Simeon Ikins was real. Dead, but real. "It was like this connection over history," Ikins says. "It was my connection to a guy who had been at one of the pivotal battles in history."

So in 1998 he got the folks at Gettysburg on the line. He was coming to visit. He just needed the location of Simeon Ikins's grave. "I called up. I said, 'Do you have a Simeon Ikins buried in the cemetery?' She said, 'Yes, he's buried in Section D, Grave 119, the New York section, because they buried these guys by states.' I get Debbie [his wife] and we drive to Gettysburg."

The folks at the visitor center pointed him to Section D. He peered at stones and kept moving, looking. Finally, there it was, Grave 119.

"I go up to the stone and I don't find Simeon's name on the stone. I find 'J.C. Kent.' I say, 'Who the hell is J.C. Kent?' I go back to the visitor center and say, 'It's not Simeon Ikins's name on the gravestone; it's J.C. Kent.' " Ikins was told by cemetery officials that the registrar listed a "Simeon Ikins" who should have been buried there. They were as confused as he was. He and Debbie shook their heads driving all the way back home: Who was in Grave 119?

Soon enough, Ikins tracked down John Busey, a Gettysburg buff who had written a book about those killed in the battle. Busey was working at the Department of Agriculture as a program analyst with the food stamp program.

Busey told Ikins that he had to get hold of Simeon Ikins's wartime hospital records and chart his movements from wounding to burial. "I believe it falls to me to take the necessary steps to correct this 135-year-old error," Ikins told Gettysburg officials back in 1998.

Simeon Ikins

A soldier's story:

His family emigrated from England. Growing up, he was known to walk long distances without complaint. He joined the Civil War when he was 18, attached to a company of New York Volunteers, Company K, 136th Regiment. He hailed from a small town, Wales, just outside Buffalo, where he farmed.

He was with his regiment when they fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

He slept under a tent.

He was with them when they fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He would have turned 19 while at war. He did not leave a wife behind. And he was with them during those three infamous days in July 1863, when 160,000 Union and Confederate combatants squared off on a piece of Pennsylvania farmland. He would have heard the musket fire coming.

"He was wounded by a musket ball on the battlefield," says Marilyn Hillison, the young soldier's great-niece. Hillison discovered that Ikins spent hours on the ground before being taken to an aid station. He would have stared at the sky. In the great battle, more than 10,000 would die. More than 30,000 were wounded.

A newspaper account at the time detailed the site: "This town . . . is literally one vast and over-crowded hospital . . . several thousands are lying, with arms and legs amputated, and every other kind of conceivable wound, in tents, on the open field, in the woods, in stables and barns, and some of them even on the bare ground, without cover or shelter."

When finally retrieved, Simeon Ikins was taken to Camp Letterman, a makeshift hospital on the battlefield. He survived less than two months and died of gangrene Aug. 29, 1863.


Chuck Ikins corrects the gravestone of his great great uncle. (Timothy Jacobsen - for The Post)

That fall, soldiers were disinterred, in preparation for a national cemetery, and reburied on the site.

A 19-year-old "lost not only his life, but his identity," says Hillison.


07-14-03, 08:58 AM
Chuck Ikins

A soldier's story:

He left a wife behind. He came from small-town Ohio. His hobbies were genealogy and history. He joined the Marines in 1981 and stayed in for six years. Then he went to grad school, and in 1989, he started working in the nation's capital, serving as chief of staff to the delegate from Guam. His reserve unit was called up and he went off to the first Gulf War for four months in 1991.

By 1998, he was working for the Department of Defense as regional director for Southern Africa in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs.

In mid-November 2002, Lt. Col. Chuck Ikins, Marine reservist, began packing for Iraq. War is war -- on a piece of farmland in Pennsylvania or in the deserts of Iraq.

He seemed slightly agitated while making preparations. Just before departing, he asked his wife, Debbie, to go with him to the National Archives. There was more research work to do to prove Simeon Ikins was in Grave 119. "I just can't believe he's taking the time to do this," Debbie Ikins recalls thinking.

It was a war he had to go to. And people died in wars. But not as ghosts. As real men and women with real names. Chuck Ikins made out his own burial plans and gave them to a friend. A man once got buried in a long-ago war and lost his name. Then Debbie Ikins began to understand: "He probably wanted to do it," she says of wrapping up the research into Simeon Ikins's mystery, "in case anything happened."

As it happened, it was a fateful visit to the Archives. He discovered that on the day Simeon Ikins had been admitted to the battlefield hospital, there had been multiple listings for his name, "SIkins" became "JCKens" which became finally J.C. Kent, which seemed to be the work of tired battlefield transcribers, which is exactly what the Gettysburg historian, John Busey, had surmised as well. But now Ikins sat with the paper trail. He wanted to holler, but he couldn't. He was in the National Archives. So he hushed-hollered.

He dropped his new packet in the mail on Nov. 18, addressed to the Superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park. He explained:

"The name 'J.C. Kens Company H 137th N.Y.' appears in the second listing and 'J.C. Kent Co K Regt 136' appears on the headstone in the Soldiers' National Cemetery. We know from Mr. Busey's research that:

"a) There was no casualty in either army at the battle with the name 'J.C. Kens.' "b) The regimental casualty report for the 137th New York Infantry for Gettysburg does not list any soldier by this name."

Chuck Ikins, bound for war, having left a letter behind about his own burial if disaster should befall him, ended his letter with these words about the soul buried under the name J.C. Kent: "[I]n your 1998 letter to me you asked me the question . . . 'who is really buried there?' I believe that we both now know [who] really lies there. On the one hand, we have a name on a headstone of someone we know did not exist at the battle. On the other, we have a highly plausible explanation that someone that was present is and has been the victim of error in record keeping. Given that the bodies were interred in trenches, he is likely not lying directly under the headstone, but Private Simeon Ikins lies somewhere very close to it. What remains now is to do something about it. Please decide to recognize him properly."

On Nov. 26, he left for Iraq, serving as a liaison officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

He slept under a tent.

He heard plenty of cannon fire.

He once saw a helicopter rise up, then drop, like a heavy ball, right into a creek, killing several soldiers.

One day he got a missive from Gettysburg National Cemetery. It began:

"We received your letter of November 18, 2002, regarding Private Simeon Ikins, along with all the supporting materials which you so painstakingly collected. It was an impressive piece of research. Our staff has carefully reviewed all the materials which you sent, and has concluded that you have provided overwhelming and convincing proof that it is indeed Private Simeon Ikins who is interred in Grave D-119 of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg, rather than J.C. Kent."

He told the other soldiers alongside him. They whooped and hollered and high-fived. "Leave no man behind!" they said. They were talking about Simeon Ikins.

On May 26, 2003, Lt. Col. Chuck Ikins landed at Dulles. His wife and commanding officer met him. Debbie prepared a dinner that night: Rib-eye steak, mashed potatoes, a garden salad; strawberry shortcake for dessert.

And then he called his relatives and told them that Simeon had been found.

History Corrected

Today, a Marine pulled into a parking lot adjoining the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He changed into his dress uniform: white slacks, white suspenders, patent-leather shoes, white shirt, cuff links, a dress-blue jacket, Sam Browne belt, his eight service medals.

"It's like the end of this long story that was half-finished," says Chuck Ikins.

Dressed, he turned toward the sunshine and led 15 family members and friends 100 yards to the grave site of Simeon Ikins.

Winona Peterson, a representative of the cemetery, was present. So was Liz Kaszubski, who had driven from New York state on behalf of the descendants of the 136th.

Then there stood Chuck Ikins at the grave site. "Marines go to great lengths not to leave dead or wounded on the battlefield," he said to the gathering. He talked about the battle, about Simeon Ikins's wounds and the gangrene that killed him on this field 140 years ago.

A niece and nephew read from accounts of the battle.

"I was at Babylon, in Iraq, the presidential palace, when I got news" that the government had accepted his findings, he said.

He was soon kneeling down, painting new letters over the name J.C. Kent. In five minutes' time, it said "Simeon Ikins."

He stood.

"I think of all the Memorial Days where all these graves would have had people visiting them and putting flowers on them, and not Simeon's. Well, no more."

He cited a stanza from a poem about Civil War dead read by Oliver Wendell Holmes at the funeral of another veteran:

Are these not the voices of them that love,

That love -- and remember me?

Ikins then told the others that he needed a private moment. Then, Lt. Col. Chuck Ikins knelt over -- not the ghost but Simeon Ikins himself, and said, "I told you I'd do it. And I did."

Then he stood and saluted Pvt. Simeon Ikins. And he marched off the battlefield, having raised a name from a pine coffin at long last up into the sunlight.

2003 The Washington Post Company


Lt. Col. Chuck Ikins salutes near his great-great-uncle's resting place after ceremonies to put Simeon Ikins's name on his gravestone.

Photo Credit: Timothy Jacobsen For The Washington Post