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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Nearly 150 years after Pvt. George McCarthy served in the U.S. military, a detail of Civil War re-enactors carried his cremains slowly up the hill Tuesday to his final resting place.
McCarthy died at age 102 in Missouri, but for nearly 70 years his ashes went unclaimed, resting on a shelf a funeral home storage facility in Kansas City. He was finally laid to rest Tuesday among the 23,000 veterans and their spouses buried at the national cemetery at Fort Leavenworth, one of the original 14 created by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Thanks to the Missing in America Project, McCarthy and the cremains of 13 other Army veterans were discovered and given a formal military funeral at Fort Leavenworth. Three spouses also were buried, placed in graves on a ridgeline overlooking the cemetery.
"They're veterans. That says it all," said Linda Smith, head of operations for the project. "They should be buried. Instead, they sit in funeral homes."
Smith estimates more than 100,000 cremains of veterans could be in storage across the country. The Missing in America Project and its 900 volunteers have been working to locate those cremains, identify veterans and make sure they get a proper burial.
McCarthy's remains were among several thousand found in funeral homes across Missouri, some of which were buried earlier this year at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis.
"There's a lot of them who were homeless, didn't have family at all or were estranged from their family," Smith said. "There were lots of reasons why they were stored in the funeral homes. They protect them so that they are stored in good places."
Bill Owensby, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery operations in Kansas, said veterans are entitled to burial in a national or state veterans' cemetery. While the VA isn't responsible for tracking down all veterans who have died and giving them that funeral, the agency does work with volunteer groups such as Missing in America.
"We are making a promise to our nation's veterans that we will try to recover every set of cremains sitting in funeral homes across the country," Owensby said. "We take that commitment very seriously."
He said strict laws govern how funeral homes handle and preserve cremains. After a veteran is identified and 30-days public notice given, the VA and the Missing in America Project begin the process of arranging for burial.
McCarthy was born in Canada in 1844 and was a sailor before moving to the United States and joining the Union Army in 1864. He was a clerk with the 2nd Missouri Artillery Volunteers, leaving the Army in 1865. Little else is known about him, Smith said, other than he was a substitute for another soldier when he entered the Army.
"He had gray eyes and black hair," she said.
He died in 1946, and his cremains had been in storage for a funeral home until Smith's group contacted the owners about any unclaimed cremains.
Bob Wandel, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War from Lawrence, carried McCarthy's cremains in a white, marble box, marching a couple hundred yards to a burial plot under a giant oak tree. Re-enactors dressed in wool uniforms paused in their detail to sip water and cool off as conditions approached 100 degrees.
Finally, the detail reached the ridgeline. Wandel came forward, dropped to his knees and placed McCarthy's urn in the hole, the box sliding to rest several feet below. A final salute and prayer and the mission was complete.
"It was a great honor. I jumped at the chance," Wandel said. "We were surprised. Every now and then we get a real Civil War son or real daughter who passed away."
Nearby, Stephen Knight of Independence, Mo.., snapped a salute and photos as McCarthy's cremains were placed. Knight served 20 years in the military, four in the Navy in Vietnam, then 16 later in the Army. He was among nearly 100 Patriot Guard and American Legion Riders who escorted the cremains to the cemetery.
"I find it so odd that we have our veterans warehoused and nobody wants them," Knight said. "There's no family to take responsibility for them. I don't understand that."