Spanish-American War Vet Gains Headstone After More Than a Century

Spanish-American War Vet Gains Headstone After More Than a Century
Jim Downing, genealogist, at Charles Pyle's military headstone

BROKEN BOW – An almost ten-year genealogical research project bouncing between Broken Bow and Austin, Texas has culminated in a headstone for a nearly-forgotten veteran of a nearly-forgotten war.

Charles Caesar Pyle, homesteader, school principal, potash miner, and private in the United States Army’s Hospital Corps during the Spanish-American War, added one more feather in his well-plumed cap on Wednesday: a burial with full military honors.

Succumbing to pneumonia at his Halsey homestead on Christmas Eve of 1915 a hemisphere away from wife, daughter, and relations, Pyle, a freemason himself, was buried by brothers from the nearby Anselmo Masonic Temple.

His grave would go unmarked for the next hundred-plus years until Jim Downing of Austin, having married into the Pyles, revived family reunions amid growing curiosity about those who came before him.

“My wife and I came up here last year, going from town to town where Charles taught, working our way from Harrison all the way down to Anselmo, and in the process we stopped at the cemetery here to see where he was buried.”

An older man, great nephew of Pyle, Downing is nonetheless spry in his dedication to genealogy, passion in speaking and finesse with socks, which on the day of Pyle’s dedication were swathed in Old Glory’s stars and stripes to complement a shirt spangled with fireworks.

Looking over the acre of paper he and Custer County Historical Society genealogy oracle Tammy Hendrickson had assembled over the past six years, Downing almost smirks.

“The thing about genealogy is when you’re young enough to get the answers, you don’t give a damn, and when you’re old enough to care, everybody you can ask is dead.”

On the table lay what Hendrickson deemed “the curious pieces” of Pyle’s life: a copy of his homestead patent draped over his military service discharge, a Texas birth certificate cozied up with a letter to the Bureau of Pensions from Pyle’s wife, Frank Alexandra Wilkes, postmarked from the Philippines.

It is a mosaic of fact, but a timeline incomplete. Municipal scribbles hardly constitute a man; he must take to scribbling something of his own. Downing presents a box in pantomime. “We found a whole mess of letters, and this allowed us to piece together his life in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.”

Too many to count, the letters spanned years and half the globe, flushing with life and through history the aspirations of Pyle the man like a voice in a canyon; his ear, of course, was none other than his wife, Frank.

“It seems,” Pyle wrote in a letter toward the end of his life, “that Fate has me under a big weight, and is ruthlessly grinding me.”

“She’d be writing him about twice a week,” Downing says. “But it would take between twenty-eight and forty days for letters to arrive, and over time, they accumulated,” without which, the memory of the man would remain as unfulfilled as the promise of a proper headstone.

Hendrickson was just the person to make good on that promise. “We got some things going on Pyle,” she says, “and discovered he was a veteran. Jim said he wanted to get a stone for him. He’s noted in the cemetery, but he’s just not marked. So I said, let’s see if we can’t get his veteran’s things together and get a headstone for him.”

“It’s just not fair,” Downing recalls his wife saying, “He deserves a headstone.”

In talking to the Veterans Office, the two discovered that given Pyle’s status as a veteran of the Spanish-American War, he qualified for a proper military headstone which the family would not have to purchase.

It was Palmer Monument in Broken Bow, Hendrickson credits, with bringing an authentic flair to the stone. “It’s kind of a unique setting,” she says, “It’s two feet underground, and two feet above ground because that’s how it would have been done at the time.”

Pyle’s ceremony took place on an immaculate July afternoon, just after Independence Day. Members of the Nebraska Honor Guard sounded a salute for their fallen brother-in-arms, and taps swirled the still air from the bell of a period-appropriate military bugle.

The headstone is the spitting image of an early twentieth-century U.S. military marker, bearing Pyle’s name, corps, and birth and death dates. “Anyone can pop out to the cemetery and see it,” Hendrickson says, “It’s not draped or anything.”