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Cemetery Walk cold

Debra Reid, Coles County Historical Society member, speaks to a crowd about the lives of George Curyea and Melvina Tipton on Saturday at the society's annual cemetery walk. Curyea was of the major developers of Mattoon.

MATTOON -- Despite the bitter cold wind that swept through the area, roughly 20 to 30 people sought to gain more insight into the rich history and heritage that rests at Dodge Grove Cemetery during a cemetery walk Saturday.

They learned that some of the many who helped shape Mattoon and, in some cases, the country, lie beneath the soil in the cemetery, such as James Monroe, a Civil War hero who had major influences on the turn in the war in the West.

Early in his life, Monroe, a blond-haired, tall man, owned a dry goods business, said Paul Baumann, Coles County Historical Society member. The annual walk is led by the historical society.

After failing to impress the father of a woman he was interested in marrying, Monroe joined a mercenary group in Honduras. After a little while in the country, the father became more impressed and Monroe and the girl married. Monroe would later become the mayor of the Mattoon.

Shortly after, the Civil War started, leading him to join up in the Union Army. In the war, he would lead the charge in several battles he participated in. Moving up quickly through the ranks, Monroe continued to lead the charge as a colonel in a group of infantry considered an aggressive force that saw action a lot.

“They gained a lot of recognition for their bravery over time,” Baumann said.

Monroe would then join the Wilder Brigade that was considered an elite force.

“They were designed to be able to get in quickly, dismount, attack, mount back up and chase them down and kill them all,” Baumann said.

Monroe got his fame during one particular point in battle. His unit was outnumbered significantly and he was trapped. Cannons were fired behind his unit, leaving no room for retreat while enemy forces were closing in.

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Monroe and his unit had to move forward through the deeply wooded area when they noticed another problem. Batteries were on top of a hill ahead and were shelling them.

Despite the orders to just advance, Monroe pushed himself and his men up to the hill. Right as they reached the battery, he was shot, but his men took the battery and turned it on the enemy.

The effort by Monroe and his men pushed back several units of the Confederacy, leading to the end of Southern victories in the West.

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“He is Coles County’s only true war hero,” Baumann said.

Others were also highlighted during the tour of the dead, like Joseph Withington, who died June 25, 1920. Withington did many things in his life which included helping in the composition of the first issue of the Mattoon Gazette as well as participating in the Civil War.

Starting in 1867, Withington became the official recorder in Coles County at the time. He even predicted the major Category 5 cyclone in 1917 three days before it occurred. It would be one of the biggest tornadoes Coles County has ever seen.

Despite his prediction, many still died as a result of the devastating tornado.

Another person detailed, George Curyea, was one of the richest at the time, owning much of the land in Mattoon. He became one of the largest developers of Mattoon, selling and enticing people to buy land in Mattoon. He held one of the larger, more extravagant plots in the cemetery.

Debra Reid, another historical society member, said cemetery walks are an engaging way to learn about the history and heritage of the town. She said in some aspects, it is a way to be closer to the ancestors who shaped the city.

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Contact Jarmon at jjarmon@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6839.

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