Just over one hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was split in two, and the Civil War was raging.
On Sunday, the Fishtown community came together to honor the sacrifice of five brothers from that neighborhood who fought for the Union in the Civil War. They unveiled a new memorial in Palmer Cemetery in honor of the Willingmyre brothers, two of whom died in action while fighting for the union.
Tears were shed. Civil War re-enactors fired a 21-gun salute. Over 100 neighbors honored the American flag.
For a moment, history came back to life.
“This is about helping to preserve our neighborhood history and honoring Philadelphia’s involvement in the Civil War,” said The Rev. Edward Brady of St. Anne’s Parish during the ceremony.
For the eleven descendants of the Willingmyre brothers who came to Fishtown last weekend, the community’s recognition of their ancestors was a meaningful and touching tribute.
George T. Willingmyre, 65, of Spencerville, Md., is a direct descendant of Daniel Willingmyre, who was a Philadelphia police officer before becoming a soldier and going to war. He died on July 2, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg.
George has a historic musket and cornet trumpet that he inherited from his Civil War-veteran forefather and which he shared during the ceremony.
“I’m getting to the age where I wonder, what’s going to happen to all of these things?” George said. “Events like this make me realize how important it is.”
This ceremony was the product of a year of research by Fishtown resident Deb Lonergan.
“I was doing research on my family,” said Lonergan. “When I found out about the five brothers that all fought in the Civil War, I just thought it was incredible.”
Lonergan was already a long-time Civil War buff, but has never undertaken a research project like this before, she said. After gathering the details of the Willingmyre brothers’ history and contacting their living relatives, she and Jim Kingsmill, a trustee of Palmer Cemetery, applied to the Penn Treaty Special Services District for funds for a memorial. They received $2,500 for the ceremony last weekend.
“I just feel really honored,” said Donna Willingmyre, 63, George’s wife. “That’s amazing to me, that someone took the time research and honor someone that’s not even from their own family.”
An audience made up of veterans from American Legion Elm Tree Post #88, Civil War re-enactors, and Fishtown neighbors gathered to hear the story of the Willingmyres.
As guests at Palmer Cemetery learned, two of the Willingmyre brothers died in the Civil War – Daniel at the Battle of Gettysburg, and Samuel, who was killed outside Dallas, Texas during Sherman’s March.
Charles Willingmyre was taken prisoner in West Virginia, but survived the war and lived on the 1100 block of Palmer Street.
George Willingmyre was wounded at Gettysburg and again in Cold Harbor, Va., but survived the war to live until 1913.
The youngest brother, Theodore Willingmyre, was shot during the Battle of Antietam and honorably discharged from the army – but re-enlisted after his brother Daniel died in Gettysburg, and fought until the end of the war. He later died in a railroad accident in 1869.
“This is a unique opportunity,” said Richard Willingmyre, who lives in Reading, Pa., of the ceremony on Sunday. “These pieces of the puzzle start coming together – not just what they did, but what their lives were like.”
It’s not the first time the Willingmyres have been brought together to honor their past. Two Willingmyres were buried under unmarked graves at Longview Cemetery in Rockledge, Pa. The descendants came together in 1990 to lay markers on their graves.
But for some of the Willingmyres, their Civil War heritage was news to them.
“I’ve only really found this out this week,” said Daniel Willingmyre, 17, Richard’s son. “It’s amazing.”
But when asked what he would do if he were in his ancestors’ place – one of whom enlisted in the Army at the age of 19 — Daniel Willingmyre knew the answer.
“Yeah, I’d serve my country,” he said. **