31 May 2010

Ceremony Honours Canadian For Heroism In U.S. Civil War

Ontario-born Benjamin Franklin Youngs was one of many Canadians who volunteered to fight in the U.S. Civil War. His heroic actions in that conflict earned him a Medal of Honor. Youngs was recently honoured at a bi-national ceremony at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Los Angeles.

A line of soldiers clad in Union Army dress aimed their rifles and fired in unison, the smoke from their volley drifting above the dead.

It would have been a common sight on June 17, 1864 — the day North and South clashed at the Battle of Petersburg during the U.S. Civil War — but this was almost 150 years later at a cemetery in California, where a Canadian who fought in the 19th-century American conflict was being honoured for his heroism.

Earlier this month at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Los Angeles, the gravesite of Ontario-born Benjamin Franklin Youngs was the centre of a sombre, bi-national ceremony in which a new memorial stone — flanked by wreaths from the Canadian government and the Woodstock, Ont.-area township of Zorra, where he grew up in the mid-1800s — was unveiled with full military honours.

Youngs, his given names a clue to his family’s ancestral roots in the U.S., was one of thousands of Canadians who volunteered to fight across the border when the fight over slavery and states’ rights tore America apart in the 1860s.

But few Canadians distinguished themselves as Youngs did. Only 19 when he left the family farm west of Toronto in 1863 and enlisted with the Michigan Sharpshooters, the aspiring carpenter would be awarded the Medal of Honor — the highest military decoration in the U.S. — for his battlefield bravery the next year.

During a pivotal push through Confederate Virginia in 1864, Youngs led a Union advance through enemy lines near the city of Petersburg and captured the flag of a surprised North Carolina regiment.

He was “promoted to sergeant on the spot,” according to family biography, and was later presented a medal that only 1,500 other soldiers received during the Civil War, and fewer than 3,500 in all of U.S. history.

The May 15 event in Los Angeles was organized by the California Medal of Honour Project, a group led by veterans’ advocate Debbie Peevyhouse that locates the burial sites of forgotten war heroes and erects special grave markers to which Medal of Honor recipients are entitled under U.S. law.

“When Debbie contacted us about the event she was organizing for Benjamin Franklin Youngs, I don’t think any of us really understood what was involved,” Frankie Glass, a great-granddaughter of Youngs living in Burbank, Calif., told Canwest News Service.

“The rendering of military funeral honours was an exciting and poignant event for all of us,” she said. “It brought together relatives who never knew the others existed until a few short months ago.”

Among them were descendants from Stratford, Ont., where members of the extended Youngs clan — perhaps inspired by the family’s Civil War claim to fame — were bestowed Canadian medals for bravery in both the First and Second World War.

After his daring action at Petersburg, B.F. Youngs fought several more Civil War battles before being wounded and sent home to Canada.

A record-keeping error listed him as being dishonourably discharged at the time — a mistake finally corrected when the U.S. Congress passed a special resolution restoring Youngs’ good name in 1925.

By then, he was an elderly man who’d moved from Ontario to live with relatives in California. He died at the Old Soldiers Nursing Home in Los Angeles in 1927 at the age of 82.

And there he was buried, without fanfare, beneath a footstone that recorded only his name and the years he had lived.

The new tombstone, etched with a Medal of Honor insignia and Youngs’ name set within a stylized military badge, now prominently recalls a Canadian’s shining moment in the darkest chapter of U.S. history.