by Jonathan Weaver
Cliff Chestnut doesn’t know much about his great-great-great uncle Peter Bowser, but turns out all he had to do was go in his own backyard.
Bowser, a Sergeant with the 78th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers during the U.S. Civil War, received a new white, marble gravestone in May which will be rededicated by the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, John T. Crawford Camp 43 in Kittanning this Sunday.
Chestnut, 72, owns 26 ½ acres of family property along Bunker Hill Road in North Buffalo Township alongside his wife, Roxie. A quarter-mile from the road is the Dick-Bowser Cemetery where Peter is buried.
“I’ve always enjoyed history,” Chestnut said, who will also attend the ceremony and has been diagramming his family tree.
Chestnut’s uncle, Jim Novak and aunt Helen, own about 12 acres beside him on the former family homestead. Other relatives also inherited land, but some of them have sold it off.
“It goes way back in my family. My grandmother’s grandmother was a Bowser. It’s about three or four generations back, but the farm has been in my family for years,” Chestnut said
That great descendant’s name was Margaret Bowser.
According to Pennsylvania Department Commander Richard Essenwein, Sgt. Bowser enlisted in the Union army Sept. 12, 1861 at 31 years old and was first stationed at Camp Orr (now in Wick City). Peter’s brothers – John G. and Washington – also enlisted into the army and were officially installed a month later into the 78th Regiment by Capt. H.P. Hayes.
Under the direction of Capt. John Jordan, the 78th rode the railroad to Pittsburgh before being sent to Louisville, Ky. in 1862.
Essenwein went on to tell some of the unit’s historical significance.
“The 78th was a pretty well-served unit. “The big accomplishment of the unit was they were in Nashville, Tenn., heavily engaged in the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro),” Essenwein said. “During the battle, they captured a Confederate battery and captured the flag of the 26th Tennessee. That flag was the trophy of the 78th Pennsylvania and to this day is a Harrisburg museum.”
Battle of Stones River was said to have more than 23,000 casualties on New Years Eve 1862.
The Volunteers also battled in other Tennessee engagements and guarded many railroads.
Peter, who became Sergeant of Company G, was honorably discharged three years later – Nov. 4, 1864 – and married Eliza Dick. The couple had seven children.
Essenwein concluded the cemetery’s hyphened name may be as a result of this marriage.
Bowser was given his $12 pension starting in 1894, only two years before his death.
There are 18 family members buried in the cemetery according to the Armstrong County Historical Society, many with simple white headstones from the 1800’s. Other relatives are said to be buried in the Center Hill Church cemetery.
The Bowser Family History is available for free scroll online. It was written by Addison Bartholomew Bowser in 1922.
John T. Crawford Camp Commander Robert “Slim” Bowser of Walkchalk is also a distant cousin of Peter. For that – as Essenwein explained – the Sons’ duties Sunday will be altered.
“Typically, we have the camp commander present the flag. For this one, we’re having the Camp Secretary Jim Johnson of Kittanning (since) his ancestor was Captain Jordan, Sgt. Bowser’s commanding officer,” Essenwein said. “We’re going to have a descendant of the commanding officer present the flag to the descendant of the sergeant we’re honoring.”
Robert and Peter’s other descendant – Jean Mathabel of New Kensington, who is part of the Sarah A. Crawford Women’s Auxiliary – will put the 34-star flag (symbolizing the number of states during the Union at that time) on the grave.
Roxie said Robert was relieved to find where Peter was buried and only found out recently.
“He was tickled to find out where (Peter) is buried,” Roxie said.
A 21-gun salute and bagpipe music will also commemorate Peter’s military service. Auxiliary members are also to place flowers at the site.
Essenwein expects more than a dozen local Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War at the ceremony.
A living historian within the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, Robert said the group has replaced nearly 150 gravestones after first applying with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The ceremony is open to the public and begins at 2PM.
“The cemetery is easily accessible – if you know where to go,” Essenwein said.
Signs leading to the grave site will be posted along Bunker Hill Road, with a permanent fixture possibly in the future.
Essenwein will be making his first official grave dedication since his appointment to district commander in May. He is only the second elected from Camp 43 to lead the state division.
Cliff’s wife of 33 years, Roxie said he and Jim have done a lot of yardwork and lawn mowing to make the cemetery accessible to traffic and company.
“You couldn’t even get through this (brush) before. He’s really worked to clean that out,” Roxie said.
Cliff’s five children through a previous marriage that live in Missouri and Kansas are in line to inherit the property.
Chestnut is one of the last descendants on his father’s side. His last sister, Susan Carvell, died in 2008, but there are other great-relatives.
The historical significance has caused Cliff – who will also get a 34-star flag from the service as a descendant – and Roxie to consider selling their burial plots in Appleby Manor cemetery and be buried at the Dick-Bowser Cemetery.
Or what may eventually be the Dick-Bowser-Chestnut Cemetery.