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Photo by Gaz De Vere

At Islington & St. Pancras Cemetery on 30 July 2021 we were pleased to have representatives from the American Civil War Round Table (UK) present at the rededication of the grave of civil war veteran George Denham. Michael Hammerson gave an address about the history of Civil War Veterans in Britain, and also present were former Round Table President Greg Bayne, and Darren Rawlings who was part of the Guard of Honour put on by reenactors from the Southern Skirmish Association, dressed for the occasion as George’s old regiment, the 111th Pennsylvania. Also participating in the ceremony were the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Ensign John Davis Chapter, of which Michael Hammerson is an Associate Member and the Graves Registration Officer.

Photo by Greg Bayne

There were many British participants in the Civil War, but George Denham was one of a number of men who served in both the US Navy and the US Army. His story was bought to our attention by a descendent, Gina Costin, whose mother was once told by her father that his grandfather fought in the American Civil War and received a pension from the US Government until the day he died. For over fifteen years Gina has been tracking down her lineage and the precise site of George’s grave plot, where his wife and three other family members are also buried, allowing this year’s ceremony to take place.

Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire around 1835, George was a more adventurous soul than many of his contemporaries. George’s father moved to London in the early 1840’s for work and George looked even further abroad for opportunities. By 1856 he was in America, where he enlisted in the US Navy, serving on the frigate USS St Lawrence in South America. In 1859 he reenlisted for a further three years, and was assigned to the new steam frigate USS Roanoke, stationed in the West Indies.

On Wednesday 26 August 1863, giving his status as "sailor" and his name as William Wright Denham (the Wright part being his mother’s maiden name), he enlisted as a substitute at Norristown PA, in Co F, 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Just a month later on 27 September 1863 his regiment was amongst the troops sent from Virginia to the western theatre as reinforcements following the Union defeat at Chickamauga. The 111th joined the Army of Tennessee and George carried out picket duties around Wauhatchie near Chattanooga. Here he got his first real taste of war on 28 October when Union forces under Brigadier General John W Geary, including the 111th Pennsylvania, beat off an attack by a South Carolina brigade under Colonel John Bratton. The regiment subsequently went on to fight at the battles of Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga later that year.

When the Army of Tennessee and the 111th Pennsylvania began their march on Atlanta the following year George did not go with them however. In May 1864 he had gone back to the US Navy, as President Lincoln had authorised such a transfer to those with previous service. He served on the monitor USS Choctaw on the Mississippi. In May 1865 he went ashore at Mobile, AL, to deal with the aftermath of a Confederate gunpowder explosion, since he had experience as a stoker/firefighter. In the months thereafter he suffered from what appear likely to be the symptoms of PTSD and was discharged from Navy. He returned to Pennsylvania, staying with the family for whose son he had enlisted as a substitute. There the family doctor suggested he should return back to England.

By 1870 George was back in London where he worked on the railways, probably around King’s Cross. In 1898 he applied for a US Army pension, but forgot that he had enlisted in the 111th PA under an alias. So it was only in 1912 that he finally obtained approval for his pension, only two years before his death. His wife Jane though applied for a widows pension, and received it until her passing in 1921.

Our thanks to Gina for bringing this remarkable story to light, and for allowing us to participate in honouring George’s memory.

Both the American Civil War Round Table UK and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War would love to hear from other descendants of British participants in the war, or to give advice on tracing ancestors who fought.

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