Civil War soldier 'exists' once more
Rich Senko kneels in the thick grass of Grandview Cemetery in Monessen as his wife, Lucille, places artificial flowers at the base of at a glistening marble tombstone proclaiming the final resting place of John A. Woleslagle.
A year ago, the only memory of the Civil War solider was a diminutive headstone, nearly consumed by earth and grass.
But after hitting several dead ends, the Monessen couple – thanks to Woleslagle's great-great niece, Joanne Wright – were able to hurdle the official procedures required for a new government-provided headstone for the long-forgotten Union solider.
Rich Senko revels in the sight.
“To see that flag over there by that gravestone, you feel like a kid at Christmastime,” he said Thursday. “There was nothing here before but a hole in the ground. Looking at it now, it's hard to put into words.”
Woleslagle, a private in the 149th Pennsylvania Infantry, died in 1909. His last known residence was in Rostraver Township.
A history and Civil War enthusiast, Rich Senko's journey into the past began with a handwritten paper from his mother. It contained information about a soldier buried in town.
The Senkos, with the help of cemetery caretaker Don Gregory, scoured the cemetery and found Woleslagle's grave.
After months of seeking a Woleslagle descendant to sign off on a headstone – an action required by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – the Senkos had nearly given up hope.
“We were scratching our heads at that point,” Rich Senko said. “We thought we'd reached a dead end.”
The couple initially found and contacted an elderly relative of Woleslagle's in Youngwood. They were referred to the woman's daughter, who never returned the Senkos' calls.
Lucille Senko persisted with the mission, eventually finding a Woleslagle nephew in North Huntington Township who said he was willing to sign off on the headstone.
“He was real enthused, real enthused, but when he was to call back, he never called back, and (Lucille) kept leaving messages,” Rich Senko said.
“He didn't want to get involved. He never came out and said it, but that was the reason.”
The phone calls were tough to make, as the Senkos realized people might be suspicious of their motives.
“There are so many scams going on in this country anymore. … How would you feel if a perfect stranger called you and said, ‘I can get you a free tombstone for a relative of yours that died 150 years ago,'” Rich Senko said. “These could be decent people, but you're on the spot and so are they. Because they might think you're some kind of con artist. That's basically what I think happened.”
An article about the Senkos' quest ran in the July 16, 2012, edition of The Valley Independent, which was posted online.
“It was that article that brought this lady to us,” Rich Senko said.
In November, Joanne Wright, 60, of Laceyville, Pa., was searching online for information on a relative and came across the story.
Woleslagle is Wright's maiden name, and her great-great-grandfather, Abraham, was John's older brother.
“I was pretty excited about it,” Wright said. “There was a name I could relate to.
“My brother, Allen, is into genealogy, so I called him to find out how we were related to this person. I mean, Woleslagle is a pretty unique name.”
At first, she tried contacting more direct descendants of John A. Woleslagle – as to not “step on any toes” – but was unable to contact any, including a great-great granddaughter in Philadelphia.
Although records show Woleslagle worked as a pharmacist in the Mid-Mon Valley, it's still sketchy how he ended up being buried in Monessen. Wright said her ancestor's wife is buried elsewhere in the state. Wright soon realized the onus was on her to acquire the tombstone.
“I thought, ‘I have to do something about this,'” Wright said. “I think any veteran should be honored. He obviously wasn't anyone I knew personally, but he should be honored for his service … and remembered.”
Jimmy Pallini, commander of Allison-Lescanac Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1190 in Monessen, prepared the necessary documents, which were mailed to Wright. Wright signed them, mailed them back, and Pallini and Rich Senko filed the papers.
The tombstone arrived in the spring and was installed in June by Gregory, who later placed sod around the stone.
The Senkos had hoped for a ceremony conducted by Civil War re-enactment groups – including one honoring Woleslagle's 149th “Bucktail” regiment – but nothing developed.
Still, the Senkos feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“To do this is an honor to us and an honor to John Woleslagle,” Lucille Senko said.
“It's not about me or my wife, as I've said many times. It's about that poor guy that was lost to history,” said Rich Senko, pointing to the gravesite. “The guy exists now. He's not lost anymore.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.