History buff discovers ancestors won medals during Civil War

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

When opening her mail earlier this year, Audrey Yozie laid eyes on a bonafide piece of Civil War history.

Inside a tiny, hand-made cardboard box from the West Virginia government was a bronze medal attached to a red-white-and-blue ribbon.

“I might possibly have been the first person to see that medal since it was packaged in 1866. To me, that is amazing,” said the 78-year-old Dunbar Township resident, who is passionate about history in general and the history of her family in particular.

The medal had been posthumously awarded as a token of respect to Francis M. Heix, a Union soldier who was killed at the battle of Moorefield, W.Va., in 1864. Heix was the first husband of Yozie's great-grandmother, Eliza Ann Bryner of Ohiopyle.

Heix and Bryner were married in March 1864 while he was home on leave. He was killed that November. After the war, Yozie's great-grandmother married John F. Whipkey.

“John Whipkey was my great-grandfather – and Heix's friend,” she explained.

Pennsylvania ‘Mountaineers'?

An avid genealogist, Yozie is well-versed in historic research, which is how she learned that almost 5,200 of the 26,099 West Virginia Civil War medals were unclaimed.

Whipkey, Heix and several other local men enlisted in the West Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War. West Virginia had split away from Virginia in 1863, becoming a separate state. Virginia remained in the Confederacy, while the majority of West Virginians took up the Union cause.

Heix and Whipkey were both from the Ohiopyle area of Fayette County. They were mustered into Company H 6th West Virginia Cavalry in Stewart Township, Fayette County.

Yozie can't say for sure how they wound up with the West Virginia unit, although she believes that West Virginia's proximity to Fayette County was a factor.

“It's possible that local (Pennsylvania) units weren't recruiting at the time,” she said.

As Yozie researched her ancestors' cavalry unit, she read an article that said that 5,200 medals never were claimed by the families of West Virginia veterans.

Commissioned in 1866 by West Virginia's first governor, A.I. Boreman, the medals of honor were struck as “tokens of respect” for West Virginia's Civil War veterans. Produced by the A. Demarest Co. of New York City, they were made “at a cost not to exceed one dollar each.”

Tokens of Honor

In 1867, Boreman wrote to a veteran that the medals were made “as a testimonial to the ... devotion, patriotism and services (provided by veterans) in the suppression of the late (Civil War) rebellion.”

Having researched her family's history extensively, Yozie decided to determine if she could claim a medal for her great-grandfather Whipkey.

“I checked the West Virginia list for both names and found that (Heix's) medal was unclaimed,” she said. “I have no idea what happened to the medal that was claimed for John Whipkey, my great-grandfather. It wasn't with his Civil War discharge papers and most likely was lost.”

In November 2011, Yozie sent $50 and 19 copies of personal documentation to West Virginia dating back to her great-grandmother's marriage to Heix.

“Because of my genealogical research, I had copies of many documents recorded in my family tree,” she said.

Yozie has long been interested in family lore. She got involved in earnest after she and husband Michael closed their ceramic mold business. Yozie became interested in ceramics as a hobbyist. In the 1960s, she and Mike opened Yozie Molds Co. in Monarch (Dunbar Township).

“We made molds for the hot-ceramics industry,” she said. “We had customers in 16 countries while ceramics were popular.” That lasted until the 1990s, when the industry nose-dived. “It was worldwide. People just stopped buying ceramics.”

Time Traveler

When a relative gave her the Civil War discharge papers of her great-grandfather Whipkey, Yozie delved into her family background. Using many resources (ancestry.com is her favorite), Yozie's time travel has transported her back through many generations.

More than 20 of her relatives served in the Civil War; five were in the American Revolution; and one relative was captured by American Indians during the French and Indian War.

Yozie's home is filled with historical memorabilia, including photos, drawings and antiques.

Her quest is rooted in a simple desire.

“I want to learn as much as I can about them because they were people, not just names in a family history book,” she said. “If I can tell others about them, they will live on forever.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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