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May 20, 2005

 

 

Grave Will Tell of Soldier's Civil War Bravery 

Descendants and history enthusiasts plan to celebrate the completion of Bieger's graveside record at 1 p.m. Friday at Mount Hope Cemetery in south St. Louis County. Charles M. Bieger of St. Charles County will bring his great-grandfather's Medal of Honor.

The remains of Charles Bieger, a trunk salesman, rested beneath a common family headstone for 75 years without a hint of his distinguished place in American history.

Bieger, who died at 86, was buried on Aug. 13, 1930, alongside his wife and three of their children in Mount Hope Cemetery, at Lemay Ferry and Telegraph roads in south St. Louis County. Their single stone of gray granite, shaded by a mature maple, is marked by only one word: "Bieger."

Fresh spadework has changed the setting with a new flat stone above Bieger's grave. Its engraving is simple and stirring: "Charles Bieger, Medal of Honor, Pvt, Co D 4 Mo Cavalry, Civil War."

Descendants and history enthusiasts, 12 of them in Union soldier blue, are to meet there at 1 p.m. Friday for a ceremony to celebrate the completed graveside record. Charles M. Bieger of St. Charles County will bring the medal his great-grandfather received for rescuing his surrounded captain from capture 141 years ago.

Three forces combined to give new life to Pvt. Bieger's story - a national organization's zeal to honor the graves of Medal of Honor recipients, a family's interest in its past and a retired general's desire for a fitting ceremony.

"Frankly, I'm amazed by this," said Charles M. Bieger, who was 2 years old when his great-grandfather died. "I heard the stories long ago, but the medals have been in a drawer all these years. I thought I was the last of the Biegers. I had no idea how many relatives I have."

Also planning to attend is Russell E. Dunham of Jerseyville, the only living Medal of Honor recipient in the St. Louis area. Dunham, 85, earned his for single-handedly taking out three German machine-gun nests in France on Jan. 8, 1945.

Similar reunions are occurring across the country. A loose alliance of volunteer sleuths is checking out far-flung cemeteries for graves of Medal of Honor recipients that have no mention of the award. When they find one, they check with cemetery owners and any descendants they can find, then file a request with the Department of Veterans Affairs for a headstone.

"We get at least one such order each week," said Mike Nacincik, a spokesman for the VA's National Cemetery Administration.

A matter of respect

The man who put in the request for Bieger is Don Morfe, a retired Blue Cross executive from Baltimore, Md., and a nomad for the Medal of Honor Historical Society. The group wants to ensure that visitors to the graves of the 3,460 recipients will know of their valor.

The medal is the nation's highest award for bravery in combat.

"It's a simple matter of respect for the medal," said Morfe, who served in the Army in the mid-1950s. "I put in 45,000 miles a year. I love history and I don't golf."

He covers the country with his wife, Erna, in their Lincoln Town Car, checking on graves from lists that other private groups have compiled. In January, he wrote Mount Hope Cemetery about Bieger.

That letter reached Russell Wippler of Affton, a great-great-nephew of Bieger and genealogist of a family that, by happy coincidence, has two members on the St. Louis Civil War Round Table. Joining them was retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Bill Branson of Hillsboro, who is active in the local burial program for homeless veterans. They soon organized a full ceremony.

Morfe said his group was working on about 200 cases, including 10 others in the St. Louis area. Bellefontaine Cemetery in north St. Louis declined to accept the VA stones for seven recipients buried there, citing its rule of only one stone per grave. Neighboring Calvary Cemetery, which has three buried there, and Sts. Peter and Paul Cemetery on the south side, with one, have waived their one-gravestone rules and will install the VA issues, a spokeswoman said.

Nacincik said the VA issued 80 headstones for Medal of Honor recipients during the 2004 budget year, a year in which only three recipients died. The VA provides gravestones free to all eligible veterans.

Carol Cepregi of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the official organization of the 124 living recipients, said, "It's awesome that citizens would take it upon themselves to do this work."

Morfe said most graves in need of marking are those of veterans of the Civil War, the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War who were buried in private cemeteries. He said he had found only two graves of the 464 recipients from World War II that didn't already note the honor.

A modest soldier

Descendants of Bieger don't know why his grave wasn't marked. The Post-Dispatch obituary on Bieger mentions the medal in its headline and says he was buried with military honors.

Surviving evidence also suggests that Bieger was modest about his bravery. An article on his exploits that was published in 1927, when he was 83, notes that the reporter had to keep directing the interview back to the fateful battle. Bieger wanted to talk about how he helped police crack open an old trunk that was used to hide a body in a notorious murder downtown.

"It required about 27 direct questions to worm this interesting information out of the veteran," reporter Robertus Love noted in his article in the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Bieger, a native of Wiesbaden, Germany, immigrated to St. Louis with his family in 1857 and joined the Union cavalry in 1862. He was 19 when he accompanied an unsuccessful thrust from Memphis, Tenn., into Mississippi in February 1864.

The column was supposed to meet Gen. William T. Sherman's infantry at the rail junction of Meridian, Miss. But halfway there, the cavalry ran into a force led by the wily Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

On Feb. 22, 1864, the two sides fought a series of galloping clashes near Okolona, Miss. At Ivey's Hill, nine miles northwest of town, Capt. Frederick Hunsen was unhorsed and surrounded.

Bieger rode through gunfire, offered his horse to Hunsen and steadied the captain's wounded mount. Together they fled to safety.

The fight was a Confederate victory. The cavalry limped back to Memphis, forcing Sherman to withdraw from Meridian.

"Forrest licked us that day. Licked us good and plenty," Bieger said in 1927.

He returned to St. Louis after the war ended and eventually opened a trunk shop at Broadway and Market Street. (Forrest returned to Tennessee, where he briefly served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

In 1895, Hunsen wrote a letter detailing Bieger's exploits. Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1897.

Congress created it in 1861 and has revised and toughened its terms over the years. By far, the most were awarded for service during the Civil War - 1,522, not counting 893 that were revoked during a strenuous review that was undertaken in 1917 after many veterans feared the granting of medals had gotten out of hand. Among those who lost their medals were the 29 soldiers in President Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard.

By World War I, the medal had attained the special significance it holds today. Only 124 Americans received the medal for valor during that war, compared with 424 granted for service during the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.

Since then, the honor roll is as follows: World War II, 464 medals; Korea, 131; Vietnam, 245; Somalia, two; Iraq, one.

The last was awarded posthumously to Army Sgt. Paul R. Smith, who protected his unit at Baghdad Airport on April 4, 2003, by firing a .50-caliber machine gun at attackers until he was fatally wounded.

Eight recipients are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Another 22, including Bieger, are buried in private cemeteries in St. Louis and St. Louis County. One is buried in Collinsville.

Nine are buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which was founded in 1849. Two have headstones noting the Medal of Honor, but the graves of seven other Civil War veterans do not. Those are the ones over which Morfe and the cemetery disagree. Morfe said he had been turned down only a few other times.

Kevin Hunter, assistant superintendent at Bellefontaine, said the cemetery and Morfe's group "are at cross-purposes." Hunter said Bellefontaine must assume the families arranged the graves as they wished. He said the cemetery had few contacts with descendants but would replace an existing stone if a family were to ask.

"I understand (Morfe's) goals, but these graves were marked by the families, and their wishes must take precedence over that of a third party, even in a case such as this," Hunter said.

Reporter Tim O'Neil E-mail: toneil@post-dispatch.com 
Phone: 314-340-8132

2005, by St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

By Alex Fees

(KSDK) -- "Oh the rifle was his," says Charles Bieger, of St. Charles County.

He is talking about the tools and weapons of war that belonged to his great grandfather, who was a Civil War Private in Company D, of the Fourth Missouri Cavalry.

"The stamps on the rifle are 1847 and 1848. These were absolutely his spurs. They are really worn."

In 1897, Private Charles Bieger was selected for the Medal of Honor, the military's highest honor, for rescuing his lieutenant, who was caught behind enemy lines.

"And so he jumped on his horse," said great grandson Bieger, "rode out there, gave the horse to the lieutenant, and the lieutenant rode back."

Russell Wippler takes his whisk broom, and walks across the green hills of Mount Hope Cemetery in south St. Louis County, to tend to his great great uncle's grave. Now, next to Beiger's tombstone, set in gold trim, is a new addition to a 75-year-old gravesite. The marker notes, forever, that the soldier buried here is a Medal of Honor recipient.

It's all been made possible by a group known as the Medal of Honor Historical Society.

Wippler says, "After meeting with the committee, I can't believe everything that is going to happen," in talking about ceremonies planned at his great great uncle's gravesite, Friday at 12:45. Mt. Hope Cemetery is located in south St. Louis County, near the intersection of Telegraph and Lemay Ferry Roads.

Great grandson Beiger also appreciates the actions of the Medal of Honor Historical Society, to honor the man who shares his name, "But there's so many other soldiers that deserve it, too. It's just that, somehow, this caught on."

It is a tribute long-delayed, but not forgotten.

"It's an honor," says Wippler. "I got somebody that was famous."

2005, by KSDK.com
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

For another story on Don Morfe's great work CLICK HERE!

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