Vermilion County group to unveil long-overdue tombstone for black Civil War soldier

Vermilion County group to unveil long-overdue tombstone for black Civil War soldier

CATLIN — More than a dozen Civil War soldiers' graves are unmarked in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Catlin, likely because they were originally identified with wooden crosses that eventually deteriorated.

But a group of local historians and veterans have led the charge to mark one soldier's grave with a new marble military tombstone in a special ceremony, open to the public, at 11 a.m. April 20 in Soldier's Circle at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Calling it a day of remembrance, inspiration and patriotism, local historian Larry Weatherford of Danville said Pvt. Martin Pedee, an African-American man born in the South, was a brave man who fought for his own freedom, the freedom of others and for his country, overcoming great prejudice and obstacles along the way.

"His life sets an example for us all," said Weatherford, who has thoroughly researched Pedee's life, which led to the formation of the Martin Pedee Celebration Committee that has helped organize the April 20 dedication.

Leslie Cunningham, a member of that committee, said she truly hopes the community will come out to help honor Pedee.

"He encountered insurmountable challenges in his life, yet he rose to each one with determination and dignity. Martin went from being born an enslaved person to becoming an elected official," she said. "I feel a sense of kinship with Martin, as I am the great-great-granddaughter of a man who was in bondage most of his life."

Born in the mid-1840s on a huge plantation in the Carolinas, Pedee served in the military from 1864 to 1866 during the Civil War as a member of the 35th United States Colored Infantry. He re-enlisted in 1866 and served until 1874, which included a stint with the "Buffalo Soldiers," African-American regiments that mainly served on the Western frontier following the Civil War.

After the military, Pedee came to Vermilion County, where he worked as a farmer, and later moved to Catlin, where he became a barber, a member of the municipal band, and in 1887, the first African-American police magistrate to be elected in the state of Illinois.

His election made local, state and national news, as did his death, said Weatherford, who found newspaper accounts during his research.

"Some papers, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, did not treat the election of a black man to that position kindly, but most saw his election as a move forward for America in the last 1880s," Weatherford said.

Rhea Weatherford, who has helped her husband in this endeavor, said Pedee's life, with its twists and turns, tragedy and triumph, would make a great historical novel or movie.

"He's got a great story," she said.

There are 22 Civil War soldiers buried around the 1910 Soldier's Circle monument at Oak Ridge cemetery, according to members of American Legion Post 776 in Catlin, who originally brought Pedee's obituary to the attention of Weatherford.

Ensuing research helped confirm that Pedee was one of the soldiers buried in the circle area.

Legion members Bob Huchel and Dave DeJaeger said they'd like to mark all of the Civil War soldiers' graves with new stones and names, but the cemetery records burned in a fire years ago, so they only know the names of six.

Only through Pedee's obituary, which the Catlin Historical Society had, and further research were they able to confirm his burial there.

"I think it's tremendous we are re-dedicating his grave," DeJaeger said. "We should honor all veterans. ... If they served, they need to be honored."

Along with the Martin Pedee Celebration committee, the ceremony will be presented by the Ward Hill Lamon Civil War Roundtable and the Illiana Civil War Historical Society.

A Civil War-era replica of a 34-star American flag — donated by Danville Alderman Lloyd Randle — will be flying on the Soldier's Circle flagpole during the dedication hosted by Legion Post 776. Several other Legions will be represented, including the Color Guard from Post 559 in Champaign, which will be part of the ceremony that will also feature an Honor Guard of Civil War living history presenters.

Catlin Legion Commander Jim Rybarczyk said their members are honored to host this event and invite the public to attend and bring lawn chairs, if they want. The Catlin Legion will be open afterward, serving lunch.

This is the first of several military stone dedications planned by the Civil War roundtable and historical society this year — six in Vermilion County and two in Clark County. The groups of have researched, procured and dedicated new stones and cleaned and restored old ones for veterans since 2010.

Installation costs of Pedee's stone came from the Eugene Bencomo Memorial Fund of the Ward Hill Lamon Civil War Roundtable. The research and application process necessary to obtain these military tombstones is done by members of the Civil War roundtable and civil war historical society, and the research, installation of the stones and ceremonies are paid from donations from group members and other interested individuals and organizations.

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