Allan McKenney calls himself a “hometown armchair historian.”
The armchair part of the claim doesn’t really fit. For years, McKenney has made it his mission to find unmarked Civil War graves in Boise cemeteries, then campaign to get the Veterans Administration to provide headstones.
It’s work that involves researching cemetery records, old obituaries, death records and newspaper articles, as well as visiting websites such as Find A Grave and Fold 3, which collects military records. A lot of McKenney’s research is on the ground, walking miles up and down the rows of local cemeteries. His son Sean, a history teacher, sometimes helps. McKenney matches names with grave markers, or the absence of markers that should be there.
If you join McKenney in a cemetery stroll, you’ll find yourself stopping a lot.He pauses every time he sees a date on a stone that indicates the person lying beneath it could have served in the Civil War and every time a stone notes a deceased person’s birthplace south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
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McKenney’s first success, and the first time the Idaho Statesman chronicled his efforts, was in 2008 after he found the unmarked grave of Pvt. James Kern at Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.
Kern, a bugler with the Union Army’s 1st Kentucky Cavalry, spent his last days at the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Boise. He died in 1928, just days after his 84th birthday.
Kern left behind no known relatives. His grave sat unmarked until McKenney took notice. He found Kern’s records and did the paperwork required by the Veterans Administration. Not long after that, a truck delivered a box to Morris Hill. Inside was a dark granite stone with Kerns’ name on it. The bugler got a belated funeral at Morris Hill on Memorial Day 2008. It included burial rites as prescribed by the 1890 guidelines of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for Union veterans.
McKenney, now 70, has a new goal: getting grave markers for eight more soldiers, a group he affectionately calls “The Boise Eight.”
Working with Boise’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees cemeteries, McKenney has submitted the paperwork for the men. He’s waiting to hear from the Veterans Administration about whether it will send headstones.
“They’re all Union boys,” said McKenney. But at this point, he’d be as ardent about getting proper markers for Confederate veterans, he said. “We’re all Americans.”
Historians estimate that about 1,000 Union and Confederate veterans moved west after the war and settled in Idaho. Most were Union, but McKenney has cataloged between 30 and 40 Confederate graves across the state, from Pocatello to Lemhi and Nez Perce counties in North Idaho.
Of the Boise Eight, seven graves are at the Fort Boise Military Reserve Cemetery in the Boise Foothills. One, that of William H. Mole, is at Pioneer Cemetery on Warm Springs Avenue. McKenney found Mole with the help of a 1904 article in the Idaho Statesman that listed names of Civil War dead buried in local cemeteries, and the cemetery map. Mole’s grave site — Section 1, Block 7, Space 8 — is nothing more than a patch of green lawn. Mole lies near a stone etched in Hebrew and an obelisk in memory of Civil War dead erected by a women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Mole’s biographical notes from the Statesman at the time of his 1904 death are brief. Born in Potsdam, N.Y., he enlisted in the 106th New York Infantry in 1862. He was “mustered out,” or released from service, in 1865 after the end of the war. He died in Boise, at his home on Eastman Street, at the age of 74.
A MYSTIQUE REMAINS
McKenney, born in Rochester, Minn., and retired from a career in law enforcement and a job with the Idaho Lottery, comes from a long line of family members who saw military service. His father served in the Pacific in World War II. His great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“I have all their discharge papers and histories of all the battles they fought,” said McKenney.
Both survived their wars, though McKenney’s great-great-grandfather, a hunter in his division, accidentally shot his finger off when he was crawling over a split-rail fence. He’d been a shoemaker by trade. The injury ended his career.
McKenney said his drive to get recognition for Civil War graves comes from a “sense of love, a sense of duty to have them recognized as individuals, to have their markers and place in history.”
“Allan’s has been a long project,” said Ken Reeves, division manager at Boise Parks and Recreation. In some cases, McKenney has submitted applications for grave markers that the Veterans Administration did not approve. There’s a lot of red tape, he explained. He’s confident the Boise Eight will get their headstones. “We’re in a waiting pattern,” Reeves said.
He agrees that even 150 years after its end, mystique still surrounds the Civil War. That might explain the drive of McKenney and others to preserve its memory.
“It must have been overwhelming that folks were fighting their neighbors the way that they had to,” said Reeves. “There was President Lincoln, maybe the greatest leader in history, calling upon folks to fight their brothers. In doing so, he became the most unpopular person in the U.S.”
Jeff Packer is the director and chief curator at the Idaho Military Museum, where several Civil War artifacts are on display. Like Reeves, he’s not surprised that interest in the Civil War persists — even in Idaho, a place that may seem geographically removed from the conflict.
“When you look at Idaho’s history, we became a territory right in the middle of the Civil War,” said Packer.
Veterans from both sides came west after the war, many in search of gold.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT HEADSTONES
Along with his work in the cemeteries, McKenney is actively recruiting members to join the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. It’s a group for direct descendants, like him, of Union veterans. The Sons of Union Veterans grew out of the Grand Army of the Republic after the Grand Army’s last member died in 1956 and the once massive organization dissolved.
McKenney dreams of building the local Sons of Union Veterans roster to at least 10 members, enough to have an active camp with regular meetings, scholarship programs and more.
“People tend to think we’re a re-enactment group or club. No, we’re the granddaddy of those things,” said McKenney.
He wants to name the camp for Union Gen. Philip Sheridan. That name has history in Boise. The Grand Army of the Republic’s former hall, also named for Sheridan, still stands at 714 W. State St., north of the Idaho Capitol. The University of Idaho has offices there now, though the initials “G.A.R.” still mark the building’s facade. McKenney hopes that once the Sheridan camp is up and running, the university will let him and his fellow Union descendants hold their first official meeting there.