VAN WERT — Among the thousands of gravestones in the Woodland Cemetery, not every plot has a marker.
But Van Wert County Veterans Commissioner Bill Marshall made sure at least one of the few — a century-old plot surrounded by weathered marble headstones — got the recognition it deserved.
Provided by the state for services rendered in the earliest fights of the country, the marker for James L. Coe ensures his name will be remembered for years to come as it sits quietly above the head of one of Van Wert County’s earliest veterans.
Marshall met Coe when, out of curiosity, he decided to learn where the oldest veteran’s grave sat in Woodland Cemetery. The cemetery’s attendant led him to Section 26, past the mausoleums and obelisks, to a blank spot among the graves where James L. Coe lies.
Two months of research through digital and paper archives later, Marshall learned the man’s intriguing history of harrowing experiences.
Born on July 4, 1776 from Wyoming, Pennsylvania, James L. Coe first faced death at two when his hometown was raided by Native Americans. His father and brother was killed. He survived in the arms of his mother as she fled into the mountains.
At 16, he traveled to New York and entered the Navy, and he spent the next 12 years sailing against the Barbary pirates on the U.S.S. Hope. Marshall said Cole then left the service and began doing carpentry work. But Cole wasn’t quite done facing hardship.
When the United States and the United Kingdom clashed for a second time in the War of 1812, he enlisted and served for an additional three years. He survived the experience despite being captured and wounded in the Battle of Oswego (in New York).
Coe’s remaining years were spent in relative safety. He married and had four children — a boy and three girls, and then the family moved to Ohio in the 1850s when President Millard Fillmore handed out property to veterans. He would sell portions of that land throughout the final three decades of his life.
Marshall later learned that his own grandparents bought a part of what was Coe’s farmland in 1904, almost 20 years after the man’s death in 1885. Coe was 109 years old when he died.
Marshall pieced the tale from a few clippings of county records and from Internet research. Two major source were his obituary and an account of the man which was written by his sole remaining daughter at the time. Further investigation into Cole’s descendents didn’t turn up much, Marshall said, but he’s looking into a few other outlets for potential leads.
During his research, Marshall said he did find a newspaper article mentioning Coe. It described an elderly Coe who would walk to the Van Wert County Courthouse every month to collect the $8 a month stipend he received during his retirement.
Despite the information that could be found, plenty of questions remain about Coe’s history. The most important one for Marshall was: Why is there no grave marker?
“This was a guy who laid in an unmarked grave for a 100 years,” Marshall said. “There’s something wrong with that.”
He appealed to the state, who provides markers for indigent veterans. They sent him a gravestone three weeks later, which now sits on Coe’s plot.
Now that Coe can be identified, Marshall wants to honor him. The American Legion Post 178 will be holding a commemoration ceremony 11 a.m. July 21 complete with a speaker, color guard and 19th century historical reenactors.
“We thought we have to take of this,” Marshall said. “We thought maybe we should do more for this man.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.