DANVILLE — For more than a century, the unmarked grave of Civil War soldier Martin McHugh has gone unnoticed in a grassy area underneath the shade of a large tree at the east end of Resurrection Cemetery in Danville.
Many local residents and some special out-of-town visitors, including the U.S. Navy Color/Honor Guard, plan to gather there on Saturday to honor the Irish-born Navy seaman who came to America in the 1850s, enlisted in the military and earned the Medal of Honor for saving his fellow crewmen.
Although they never knew McHugh, who died in 1905, Machelle Long and Larry Weatherford feel like they do.
The two local residents have developed a great appreciation for and emotional connection with McHugh while researching his story in an effort to help the U.S. Medal of Honor Historical Society issue a Medal of Honor grave marker for the man, who joined family members in Danville after the war and worked his entire life in the coal mines of Vermilion County as he and his wife raised four daughters.
In 2010, a volunteer with the U.S. Medal of Honor Historical Society contacted Long, who works with vital records in the Vermilion County clerk's office, asking her to confirm information about McHugh, who had never been issued a grave marker for the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor in action.
"Sometimes you get a project that you kind of think, 'This is worth some extra time,'" said Long, who began the research that took several months to confirm that McHugh died in Vermilion County and was buried here. "As I researched him, you kind of adopt these people."
Long eventually found the unmarked grave of McHugh and his wife in Resurrection Cemetery in Danville, and the Medal of Honor Historical Society went through the process of getting a Medal of Honor marker issued. Long then asked local radio personality and historian Larry Weatherford to research McHugh's full story.
On May 27, 1863, McHugh was on board the USS Cincinnati at Vicksburg during the Civil War when Confederate cannon-fire sank the ship. Still under fire, McHugh repeatedly swam from the shore of the Mississippi River to the sinking ship, rescuing his crew mates. Several weeks later, he received the Medal of Honor with his citation signed by President Lincoln.
Weatherford said he's connected with McHugh's story, because he was a regular guy who did a heroic thing, continually swimming back into the water to rescue crew member after crew member, including the captain when he easily could have stayed on the bank.
Long and Weatherford formed a Medal of Honor Committee to plan Saturday's ceremony recognizing McHugh's actions of bravery and dedicating the Medal of Honor grave marker.
A series of ceremonies will begin at 1 p.m. at Holy Family Catholic Church, 444 E. Main St., Danville. It will be followed by a Medal of Honor stone dedication ceremony at Resurrection Cemetery beginning at 2:30 p.m. Following the cemetery ceremony, a reception will be held at the Vermilion County War Museum, 307 N. Vermilion St., Danville.
The public is invited to all of the events.
The U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band-Great Lakes will be involved in the ceremonies as well as the U.S. Navy Color/Honor Guard and several veterans organizations from Illinois and Indiana.