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Voice from the past: Civil War veteran with two names, unique history finally gets a tombstone

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, April 13, 2019
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Local genealogist Patti Gillespie believes the dead have stories to tell.

NEVER TOO LATE – Wise County Genealogical Society Vice President Carol Donovan cleans off the tombstone of a member of the Arthur family buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur. Messenger photo by Brian Knox

She recently discovered the story of an African-American Civil War soldier buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur with no tombstone.

This Sunday, more than 90 years after his death, Charles Arthur of Decatur will receive his long-delayed headstone and the honor befitting a veteran.

His story, which ended in Wise County, began more than 170 years ago in Ohio, and also two years ago in a local records building.

Gillespie, who is president of the Wise County Genealogical Society, has spent much of the past two years researching Arthur’s story. For her, the story began with a random records discovery at the county clerk’s office.

“I’d been in there 100 times, and all of a sudden, I looked over there and there were these two books that I’d never seen before, and they drew me to them like a magnet,” she said.

As she was flipping through the pages, her attention was drawn to a man with two names, or an “AKA,” as she called it.

William Eckler, also known as Charles Arthur.

Charles Arthur will have a tombstone noting his service to the Union Army during the Civil War dedicated at a ceremony Sunday at the cemetery.

“I think it was kind of a ‘God thing,'” Gillespie said of the discovery.

Through census records, death certificates, pension files, old newspaper articles and other sources, Gillespie was able to piece together the story of Eckler, who later changed his name to Arthur.

Eckler was born a free man in Brown County, Ohio, possibly in 1847, although the government would later set his birth date at April 16, 1846. Not much is known about his parents, who were likely born in Tennessee and died when he was a young child.

At the age of 17, he enlisted as a private in Company K, United States Colored Infantry and stayed with the unit until the end of the Civil War. Because he didn’t have much family to go back home to in Ohio, Eckler stayed in the Army and was attached to the 10th Cavalry.

He moved from fort to fort in Texas, fighting Indians rather than Confederate forces. Records indicate he spent time stationed at Fort Richardson in nearby Jacksboro, which is likely what brought him to this area.

By 1873, Eckler was living in Decatur, only by that time, he was known as Charles Arthur.

Why he changed his name remains a mystery. Nowhere in the 347 pages of his pension file – which included an extensive amount of documentation to prove that the two names actually belonged to the same man – does Arthur give a reason for the name change.

“I’m sure it was something awful,” said Gillespie of the possible reason for the name change. “I just tend to think there was a lot of violence in those days for black men, whether they were veterans or free or not. Who knows what he went through? But whatever he did, he didn’t let on.”

While in Decatur, he met Bettie – a former house slave who later worked for a woman named Julia who married into the Halsell family.

The Arthurs’ marriage is believed to be the first between African-Americans in Wise County, but the records proving that perished in a courthouse fire.

Gillespie also found evidence that Arthur didn’t tell his wife about his former name. However, one day a man who served in the Army with William Eckler was in Decatur and recognized his former brother in arms. When the out-of-towner went by the house to see him, Bettie told the man William Eckler didn’t live there. She said she was married to Charles Arthur. The man told her it was the same person.

“You get the impression that was the longest night of [Charles Arthur’s] life,” Gillespie said. “…When he got back home, he had a lot of explaining to do.”

After a decade of trying, Arthur finally was approved for his pension at the age of 70. He was to receive $90 per month, which was a good sum of money for the time. It would be roughly the equivalent of $1,282 today, according to Gillespie.

Messenger

When Arthur died the day after Christmas in 1926, his obituary ran on the front page of the Wise County Messenger. The obituary notes Arthur “was an industrious Negro, and he had numerous friends among the white people,” many of whom apparently attended his funeral. It noted “Charlie Arthur” was a speedy runner who often helped track down missing livestock. In his later years, he was the city’s garbage collector.

He was buried in a special section of the cemetery reserved for African-Americans, sometimes called City Cemetery.

VETERAN – Charles Arthur’s tombstone notes his service in Company K of the 5th United States Colored Infantry during the Civil War. It will be dedicated Sunday. Submitted photo

With Gillespie’s research on Arthur, his grave was added to the Wise County Genealogical Society’s Cemetery Tour at Oaklawn Cemetery last October. Many of the visitors noticed something notable was missing – a marker for his grave.

“During the cemetery walk, people were saying, ‘We can’t believe this man doesn’t have a tombstone,'” said Carol Donovan, vice president of the society. “People were ready to get out their checkbooks and start passing a hat around.”

Gillespie took her research and approached the local Veterans Service Office in Decatur to apply for a tombstone. After it was approved, the stone was cut and shipped, all at government expense.

“It was very fulfilling to be able to give a veteran a tombstone, no matter his color,” Gillespie said.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, two days before his 171st birthday, the tombstone that reads “Charles H. Arthur, Co. K, 5th USCI” will be dedicated next to tombstones of his descendants.

Among family members returning to Decatur this weekend for the memorial ceremony is Arthur’s granddaughter, Ruth Arthur, who grew up in Decatur and now lives in Fort Worth. She said her father, Irwen, who was Charles Arthur’s son, didn’t talk much about her grandfather, so she said it “felt great” to learn more about her family’s history.

“What Ms. Gillespie pulled up on him, you know I was just shocked, saying ‘Oh my God,’ He did all this?'” she said.

Ruth Arthur said Charles Arthur – who she knew as William Arthur – has two great-great-great-granddaughters who are coming from California for the ceremony.

Like Ruth Arthur, many of Charles Arthur’s descendants are still learning about William Eckler of Ohio who fought for the Union Army and Charles Arthur of Decatur who started a family and served his community.

For Gillespie, it’s the reason she does what she does: to provide a voice from the past.

“I have a strong feeling that everyone has a story, and it’s nice to remember the stories of our ancestors,” Gillespie said.

No matter what name the man with the brand new tombstone was known by, his story won’t soon be forgotten.

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