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Perham, New York Mills VFWs unveil new Civil War veterans monument at St. Stanislaus Cemetery

After recently discovering that an unmarked grave at the cemetery belonged to a Civil War veteran, and believing other Civil War veterans are likely buried nearby, the two local VFW Posts and their Auxiliaries raised money to pay for a new Civil War monument at the cemetery.

Courtesy of Perham and New York Mills VFWs, a new monument for Civil War veteran Michael Murphy, who died in 1903, and other Civil War veterans who may be buried in unmarked graves nearby, sits near the center of St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Perham, close to where Murphy is buried.
Courtesy of Perham and New York Mills VFWs, a new monument for Civil War veteran Michael Murphy, who died in 1903, and other Civil War veterans who may be buried in unmarked graves nearby, sits near the center of St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Perham, close to where Murphy is buried.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — Perham man and Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Navy, Mike Johnson, has made it his mission to identify and honor veterans buried in unmarked graves at lakes area cemeteries.

Johnson, who moved to Perham and joined the local VFW Post 4020 in 2018, recently discovered the unmarked grave of Civil War Union veteran Michael Murphy, at St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Perham.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Johnson as well as the local VFW, the New York Mills VFW and both clubs' Auxiliaries, there's a new Civil War monument at St. Stanislaus Cemetery. The monument was erected in honor of Murphy and any and all other Civil War veterans who may be buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery. It was unveiled in time for Memorial Day, when members of the VFW put flags at the graves of all known veterans.

"It's important to me that we recognize all veterans, especially on Memorial Day, so I wanted to find all the veterans I could," Johnson said. "It's been kind of a fun journey, and I'm pleased with what we've accomplished."

He began his mission a couple of years ago after placing flags at St. Stanislaus Cemetery with another member of VFW Post 4020. The placement of the flags is a long-standing tradition in the area.

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"I realized we were probably missing a lot of veterans," Johnson recalled. "So I thought, 'I want to try to find as many as possible.'"

He started by looking at the VFW's list of buried veterans and then went to St. Henry's Catholic Church for a record of everyone buried at St. Stanislaus Cemetery. He searched through the lists name-by-name, searching for information that might reveal one of the unmarked graves as belonging to a veteran.

In his search, Johnson found information about Murphy that indicated he had fought in the Civil War as part of the Missouri Cavalry.

Johnson was immediately intrigued. Why was this Missouri man and veteran buried in Perham, he wondered? Who was he, and what was his story? So Johnson — who'd always been interested in genealogy — started doing more research on the Civil War veteran.

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Mike Johnson, a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Navy and a member of the VFW Post 4020, has made it his mission to identify veterans' gravesites, so they can be honored for Memorial Day each year.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

He found that Murphy enlisted in the Union Army on Sept. 24, 1864, in the Second Missouri Cavalry Regiment known as Merrill's Horse. While Johnson doesn't know much about Murphy's life during his enlistment, he was able to track Murphy's movements to Renville County in Minnesota in 1870. This only intrigued Johnson even further.

"I'm from Renville County," he said, with an amazed smile on his face. "(It's an) interesting coincidence."

The next time he found a record of Murphy, the man was married with a few kids in 1875. Then, he was in Homestead Township near New York Mills with his family in 1900. Murphy died on Dec. 19, 1903 in that township and was buried in St. Stanislaus Cemetery. He left behind 11 kids, one of whom was named Tom Murphy, who later homesteaded north of Frazee on a lake now known as Murphy Lake. Johnson wonders if this lake is named for Michael Murphy's son.

In the course of his research, Johnson reached out to several of Murphy's family members, and found that even some of Murphy's descendants had no idea the man was a Civil War veteran. Murphy's great-grandson, for example, who resides in Houston, Texas, told Johnson he never knew this piece of his family history — so Johnson sent him information on his great-grandfather's life and service.

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Following Murphy's death, Johnson found, most of his family moved up to Saskatchewan, and this left Johnson with a lot of questions: Why was Murphy buried where he was? This was far from his original home, far from his family, and, last of all, it was a Polish cemetery.

"Well, I found out that there was a Catholic cemetery in Bluffton at the time, and there was a Catholic cemetery here: St. Stan's," Johnson said. "And so this was the closest Catholic cemetery. That's why he was most likely buried here. And I said, you know, 'I would like to put up a marker for Michael because I think he deserves to be recognized as a veteran.'"

So Johnson, working with the VFWs, raised money to pay for the new Civil War monument at St. Stanislaus Cemetery. It reads: "Michael Murphy, who served with the Missouri Calvary, GAR, and possibly other Civil War veterans lie nearby in unmarked graves."

The monument was unveiled on Monday, May 30 during the VFW's Memorial Day services. It can be found at the center of the cemetery, near Murphy's grave.

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Mike Johnson wasn't able to find any pictures of Civil War veteran Michael Murphy, but he did find a picture of his two oldest kids, Tom and Elizabeth.
Contributed / Mike Johnson

Johnson plans to continue identifying veterans buried throughout the area.

"It's kind of a labor of love," he said. "It's a lot of time going up and down the rows in the cemeteries. It kind of gives me a melancholy feeling, to see all these guys that have passed away."

When they can, Johnson said, the VFW will create new markers as more veterans are discovered in unmarked graves. He said it's important to make sure each and every veteran is remembered and honored in this way.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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