Many people forget the meaning of Memorial Day. It isn’t just a day off work or an excuse to have a barbecue. Nor is it a day in honor of veterans of the United States Armed Forces, who are honored on Veterans Day in November. No, Memorial Day is explicitly to honor those who died defending this nation, a commemoration that should hold special meaning in Mason County.
Our county was, after all, born as the result of a war. Lord Dunmore’s War, while slightly before the beginning of the American Revolution, left 81 Virginian militiamen dead and buried at Tu-Endie-Wei. Some lie buried beneath the Magazine, some were later discovered and interred beneath the Battle Monument, and others remain scattered between the Kanawha River and 2nd Street.
Less than a year later, the American Revolution began at Lexington & Concord, and the western border was deemed crucial to the war effort. From 1776 to 1779, Fort Randolph was garrisoned by a force of 100 militiamen, and in those three years, at least a dozen militiamen were buried outside Fort Randolph. Four allied Native chieftains also died at Fort Randolph while trying to assist the new American nation, murdered in cold blood because of the color of their skin.
Several years later, Fort Randolph was rebuilt to defend the border during the Northwest Indian War. Garrisoned from 1784 to 1795, at least two more militiamen were killed and buried outside the fort. There were likely more, but records from this period are sparse. However, two decades and at least one hundred deaths later, Mason County was finally settled and at peace.
That peace, unfortunately, didn’t even last twenty years. In 1812, America once again went to war with Great Britain. This was Mason County’s first war since it was formally established in 1804, and it was determined not to be left out. Out of a population of only 1,900, four companies were raised and sent off to war. Of the four, only Anthony VanSickle’s company at Fort Meigs suffered casualties. Two of that company died of injuries while constructing the new fort.
Then came the big one, the Civil War. Over 1,000 of Mason County’s young men fought in this war, most for the Union but some for the Confederacy. Without combing through thousands of casualty records in the National Archives from several different regiments, then correlating those with census records since most service records didn’t note the soldier’s home, it is virtually impossible to determine the exact number of casualties from Mason County. However, we can approximate the number by looking at the regiments that recruited from this area.
The 13th West Virginia Infantry, for example, lost 170 men during the war. Chances are, since nearly 75% of that regiment came from Mason County, at least 127 of those casualties did as well. Other local regiments, the 4th and 9th West Virginia Infantries, lost 241 and 207 men, respectively. Conservative estimates on Mason County’s representation in those units is around 15%, putting the local deaths from those regiments at a combined 67. That puts our total, on the low end, at 194 casualties during the Civil War. A sobering figure, to say the least.
I can’t find a record of any local deaths during the western wars with Native Americans or the Spanish-American War, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. There were locals who served in those wars, and the odds that all of them returned home are unfortunately very low.
The World Wars are another matter entirely. Detailed records from both of these wars are easily available, and they give figures of 32 deaths during WWI and 81 during WWII for Mason County. WWI’s figure reflects everything from the Spanish Flu to the Battle of the Somme. In WWII, Mason County’s dead were involved in every theater of the war from Germany to Japan, on the battlefields at Normandy and Iwo Jima, and in the waters of the North Atlantic and South Pacific.
Another thirteen were lost in Korea and nine in Vietnam, and though Mason County itself felt no losses in the Gulf War or War on Terror, our neighboring counties and communities did.
The confirmed deaths from the frontier period and the wars since World War I make a total of 236 confirmed military casualties from Mason County with an estimated 194 more during the Civil War alone, for a sobering total of 430. Unfortunately, that number is still on the low end because it doesn’t include unreported casualties during the frontier period, the figure from the Civil War is a conservative estimate, and official casualty figures don’t include later complications from wounds or exposure to hazardous materials like Agent Orange.
Remember these figures in a month when we honor Memorial Day, but remember that these aren’t simply numbers. They were someone’s family, went shopping on Main Street, lived here, and many are buried here. Over the next few weeks, leading up to Memorial Day, I’ll tell some of their stories.
Information from the early records of Mason County, WV Veterans Memorial Database, and National Archives.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.