BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Under a dying pine tree, off in an all-but-forgotten corner of Battle Creek's Oak Hill Cemetery, George Bailey can finally be found.
The gray headstone stands out from the others in the area, some of which are 75 years old. This one, though, is brand new and says simply, "George W. Bailey, 1st Serg., Co. I, 1st USCT."
Bailey was buried here after his death on May 17, 1929, but because he died poor, there was no money for a headstone. So here he has lain, with no headstone to mark him or his second wife Martha, who died eight years before him and lies next to him.
But all that changed thanks to the initial curiosity of the Battle Creek Historical Society and the diligence of one of its genealogists, Bellevue resident Joann Werner.
"This one has taken me places I never thought I'd go," she said.
It began about two years ago when, a freelance genealogist who thrives on diving into old records and asking questions was given a list of Civil War soldiers' names from the Battle Creek area and asked to discover what she could about them as a run-up to the war's 150th anniversary. One of the names was George W. Bailey.
Werner gained her interest in genealogy more than 20 years ago, when she began researching her family history.
"I just fell in love with it," she said. "It's like solving a puzzle."
What intrigued her was the fact that Bailey was African-American, was born a free man in southern Maryland where slavery was entrenched, and served almost from the first days when black soldiers were allowed to join the Union army in 1863.
She learned that Bailey joined the First Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (hence the USCT on his headstone). Through her research, she found he disregarded an order to retreat in the Battle of Petersburg, Va., in November 1864, captured an enemy position and suffered a gunshot wound to his left hand. He was promoted to 1st Sergeant in April 1865, mere days before the end of the war.
Several months later, he contracted what at the time was called rheumatic fever, though it's not known for sure what he really had. He was hospitalized in October 1865, spent several weeks there and then was discharged, going back to Washington, D.C., to recuperate with family.
A year later, with the help of Battle Creek abolitionist Sojourner Truth, he made his way to Battle Creek, where he worked as a hardware store clerk and then went on to own his own dye house and white-washing business. He also repaired stoves. He was a charter member of the Mount Zion AME Church and taught Sunday School.
He died, probably penniless, in 1929 at the age of 87 in the Calhoun County Home. His sister applied to the federal government for veteran's assistance so he could be buried in Oak Hill, but there was no money left for a headstone.
It was a story that touched Werner and she was informed by Oak Hill General Manager Debra Stanley that she could apply to the Veterans Administration for a headstone for Bailey.
"I submitted it to the VA and was rejected because I wasn't a family member," she said.
Bailey had no children and Werner has been unable to find any family in Battle Creek.
But the VA also told her she had another option and when Stanley applied for a headstone in the name of Oak Hill, it was approved.
The headstone arrived last fall and was installed in February and on Oct. 7, was to be officially be dedicated in a public ceremony.
Stanley said it's not that unusual for graves not to have headstones. She said of the more than 28,000 people buried there, perhaps 2,000 don't have headstones.
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