Kentish Town man's US Civil War service honoured a century on
- Credit: Gaz de Vere
For Gina Costin, finding out that her great-great-grandfather fought in the US Civil War was just the start.
After searching for his grave, and finding it in the Islington and St Pancras Cemetery, she is now determined to ensure other US Civil War veterans buried in the UK are honoured appropriately.
Gina's ancestor, George Denham, served in both the US Army and the US Navy as one of a number of Brits who sought their fortune in the war.
After his service on the other side of the Atlantic, he returned to London and lived in Maldon Road, Kentish Town. He had been told to return to England for health reasons, which Gina suspects involved PTSD after he was involved in the rescue effort after a huge explosion in Alabama just after the end of the war in 1865.
When Gina began investigating George's story, she didn't even know his first name.
She said: "My mum, she always said that her dad had remembered his grandfather having claimed to have served in the American Civil War. But we didn't even know his name.
"It's mad that even going back just 100 years I didn't know his name. But with a process of elimination we worked out it must have been George."
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Gina found George's name on lists of passengers who travelled to the US by ship in the 1850s from Liverpool, and eventually tracked him down in US Navy documents.
He first enlisted in the US Navy for the first time in 1856, claiming to have been born in Mobile, Alabama. He served in South America before returning to the US. He was honourably discharged, before signing up for the US Army as the Civil War broke out in early 1861.
George saw action throughout the war, and had enlisted as a substitute for a butcher called Martin Dager. Conscription rules at the time allowed men to hire others to take their place in the army.
George would go on to see action in some of the bloodiest battles and Gina discovered he was the eighth member of the London branch of the US Civil War Veterans organisation.
Number one was Ensign John Davis, and his descendant Pete Collins attended a ceremony to dedicate a headstone for George in Islington and St Pancras Cemetery.
Also in attendance were many of his descendants, representatives of the US Veterans' Affairs department and UK-based Civil War reenacters.
Gina said: "It felt like the past was playing forward in time as we were reconnecting with family members and talking about what George would have experienced."
During his service, George fought at the Battle for Chickamauga in Georgia – one of the Union army's last and most traumatic defeats.
"But he managed to survive this night battle," Gina said. "And this is remarkable but one of my cousins was, for no reason at all, in the area around there, on Lookout Mountain, entirely coincidentally."
Gina said organising the ceremony to pay tribute to George – and by extension other British US Civil War veterans – had become a "personal mission".
"During lockdown I was able to really build up my relationship with my mum. And after 15 years of trying to find his grave, we made the tip to London last summer.
"We came up with the grand idea of finding his headstone. But I couldn't believe it – it wasn't the Hollywood ending we'd wanted. His grave is in a very old part of the cemetery and it was very overgrown."
The US government will pay for a headstone for any US veteran's grave around the world, and so Gina set about organising a ceremony to mark the new headstone's dedication.
"It became a real mission," she said. "During the process I have been able to reconnect with many people. Of the 60 at the ceremony, 20 were descendants of George's, some of whom had not met each other before.
"It's hard to describe what that meant."
Also at the ceremony were US army bugler Christopher Shea, who played the traditional Taps piece in honour of fallen soldiers, and Bryon Davidson, from the US Department of Defence. Gina had created replica service medals for George's descendants.
She is now seeking to obtain headstones for three more US Civil War veterans who are buried in East Finchley: John Dingwall, James O’Neill and James McNab.