Students give forgotten Civil War hero a proper tribute
Posted: Sept. 30, 2004
E-MAIL | ARCHIVE
A school project has led to the startling discovery of a Civil War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient who has been resting in an unmarked grave in Milwaukee for 119 years.
John Breen fought with the Union Navy and received our nation's high honor for gallantry. That much is clear in service records kept in the National Archives.
Yet his grave at Calvary Cemetery - block 5 section B - was covered with nothing but sod for well more than a century, escaping the notice even of local Civil War buffs.
Cemetery records show him buried there in the sloping ground off of Blue Mound Road and N. 55th St. So it's not exactly the tomb of an unknown soldier. More an unsung soldier.
Until now. An upright marble headstone, engraved in gold letters, was placed on the grave in August. And a tribute to Breen will be held at the grave site Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The public is invited.
There are only seven Medal of Honor recipients from all wars buried anywhere in Milwaukee. So it's not at all common to "lose" one.
Thanks to the curiosity of sixth-graders at Greendale Middle School and the research of their teacher, Margaret Berres, and her friend, Thomas Ludka, the wrong has been righted.
"We call ourselves the Breen team," Berres joked. "But we found him by accident."
While teaching a Civil War unit this past spring, Berres invited her students to submit questions to Ludka, a service officer with the American Legion.
One of the queries had to do with the Battle of Vicksburg, which led Ludka to remember that Edward McGinn, another Civil War soldier and Medal of Honor honoree, is buried at Calvary.
He went to a Web site, www.homeofheroes.com, and stumbled on a reference to Breen. Searching further, he found a mention of Breen's grave in Milwaukee.
"Oh my God, look, it's unmarked!" he told Berres. "How can that be?"
The truth is that a surprising number of graves, then and now, go without a marker of any kind, said Chuck Murphy, a spokesman for Milwaukee Catholic Cemeteries, which runs Calvary. People forget or they can't afford it or they never get around to it. Murphy said a 98-year-old woman came into the cemetery office on Easter Sunday two years ago and ordered a grave marker for her father. He had died in 1929.
Steve Michaels of Franklin will place a wreath on Breen's grave at Saturday's tribute, which falls one day ahead of the 142nd anniversary of Breen's heroics. Michaels is the national commander of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Somehow Breen has escaped the notice of his group.
"Yes, as strange as that may sound," Michaels said. His group has replaced worn stones or provided stones for unmarked graves of about 40 Civil War veterans at Calvary over the past few years.
Berres, who besides teaching is the curator of the Oak Creek Historical Society, said she feels like she knows Breen after doing so much research. Here's what she and Ludka found:
Born in 1827, Breen made his way to America from his native Ireland and joined the Navy in 1852. He was discharged in 1855 and that same year married Ellen Grant, another Irish immigrant, in New York City where they settled. Sadly, none of their five children survived into adulthood.
Breen joined the Navy again when the war broke out. He would earn his Medal of Honor on Oct. 3, 1862, while serving as a boatswain's mate aboard the USS Commodore Perry. For seven hours, his ship and others took heavy Confederate fire and repelled boarding attempts as they made their way up the narrow Blackwater River in Virginia.
John and Ellen Breen moved to Milwaukee in 1872, presumably to help his recently widowed brother Walter raise his three children. They lived in the Third Ward area. John Breen worked as a sailor on the Great Lakes.
"He couldn't write," Berres said, noting that he X'ed rather than signed documents she's seen, "but he could sail. He sailed his whole life."
In 1885, Breen got pneumonia and died. He is buried alongside Walter and Walter's wife and three grown children. None of the graves has had a marker.
Because his own children all died, John Breen has no direct descendants. Berres and Ludka would love to find a blood relative to attend Saturday's ceremony and perhaps provide a photo of Breen. They do know that Walter's daughters married and possibly had children. Their names are Mary Ann Chambers, who died in 1933, and Margaret Larson Chapman, who died in 1945.
After Berres and Ludka filled out the paperwork, the federal government provided the headstone for Breen. The cemetery put it in place at no charge.
"I am so happy we were able to do this for him," Berres said. "John Breen had to be some kind of special man. I know it took 120 years for it to come to light."
There's just one more thing. Ellen Breen lived seven more years after her husband died. She's buried at Calvary Cemetery but alone and in a section closer to the freeway. Her grave also is unmarked. Berres and Ludka hope to raise the $915 it's going to cost to put a headstone there.
With an epitaph appropriate for her hero husband, too, Ludka would like it to say: "I once was lost but now I'm found."
Its Medal of Honor, leave the congressional out of it.