In 1920, the United States Navy commissioned a new warship, the USS McFarland. The destroyer was named for John C. McFarland, a Civil War veteran whose bravery in battle had been rewarded near the end of the war with a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Ironically, it was likely sometime in the 1920s when memory of McFarland was nearly lost in eternity.
A Veterans Day saga: McFarland was buried in Edson Cemetery in Lowell in 1881, having died of heart disease when he was barely 40 years of age. A few years later, his body was moved to Lowell Cemetery, to be interred in a ceremonial Grand Army of the Republic plot reserved for Union veterans.
But someone made a mistake when the GAR headstones were replaced, not long after the USS McFarland launched: John C. McFarland was apparently misidentified as William C. McFarland.
Or at least that has been the contention of a group of local military history buffs, who have spent years following a serpentine paper trail to correct the record. With no known survivors – McFarland’s wife, Elizabeth, and his son, also John McFarland, are buried in St. Patrick Cemetery in Lowell – the only ones looking for McFarland’s resting place were amateur historians.
For years, they couldn’t find it.
Though the Union Navy captain was initially buried in a “strangers’ row” for the impoverished, he’d made his mark in the heat of the Battle of Mobile Bay in early August 1864. A Union fleet under the command of Admiral David Farragut launched an assault on the Confederate stronghold at Mobile Bay, Ala. After days of naval warfare, the Union took control of the three forts on the bay, completing the successful blockade of the Confederacy along the southern coast.
McFarland, captain of the forecastle (the raised deck at the front of a ship) on Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford, reportedly left his sickbed to take the wheel during the shellfire. At one point, the Hartford collided with a sister ship, the Lackawanna, nearly crushing McFarland and his shipmates.
Ten years ago, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation agreed to finance the placement of a marker acknowledging McFarland as a medal recipient. With the transfer to Lowell Cemetery long since forgotten, the marker was placed in a general location in Edson Cemetery.
But Chelmsford’s Dean Contover wasn’t satisfied. A veteran himself, he takes pride in pursuing proper recognition for overlooked heroes such as McFarland.
“I don’t want a Naval Medal of Honor veteran forgotten,” he said.
With the help of Jade Bernis, Edson Cemetery’s head clerk, Contover discovered that McFarland’s remains had been moved in 1885, along with the bodies of two other military veterans. Why, then, was there no headstone in Lowell Cemetery bearing his name?
To Contover, it seemed likely that McFarland had somehow been misidentified as “William.” For one thing, another body moved from Edson belonged to a William Knott. But educated guesses aren’t enough to convince the Veterans Administration to make a change in the official record.
“The national historian who reviews Medal of Honor cases is very, very strict,” said Don Morfe, a Maryland-based veteran who has devoted his retirement to researching and photographing Medal of Honor gravesites across the country. “You have to be beyond a doubt it’s that person.”
Bill Sweeney, who lives in Woburn, is vice president of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States. It’s not uncommon for mistakes to appear in older records for veterans, often dating back to the Civil War and the American Indian Wars, he said. But those are usually matters of duplicate or similar names.
He’s never seen someone who was initially buried with proper identification, then misidentified later. For him, “this was a first for that,” he said.
The team of local researchers eventually uncovered enough evidence to prove — they believed — that their man John C. McFarland is in fact buried in Lowell Cemetery under the wrong name. Earlier this year, they submitted an application for Veterans Administration approval to order a replacement headstone.
In mid-October, Lowell Cemetery office manager Michael Lally received word that the application has been approved.
“We’re very happy we can honor this man in the nature and manner in which he deserves,” he said.
According to Jessica Schiefer, public affairs officer for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, the department is funding “a new, upright marble, Civil War Union, Medal of Honor headstone” to be placed at Lowell Cemetery.
It typically takes about two months for a new monument to be cut and delivered, said Sweeney. When the stone for John C. McFarland arrives in Lowell, he and his colleagues will be there to greet it.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.