As an eagle watched from her nest in the adjacent woods, around two-hundred people gathered on a sunny, but blustery morning to honor a ten-year Army veteran who first served in the Civil War, and then as a Buffalo Soldier in the American West.
The Ceremony took place in the Soldiers’ Circle at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Catlin, Illinois. A wooden cross had marked Martin Pedee’s grave at one time, like those of the other twenty-one veterans who would eventually be interred there. Over the years, the markers had rotted away. Decades ago, cemetery records were destroyed in a fire that left less than a third of those names remaining.
Martin Pedee’s obituary was found by a researcher at the local historical society, and it eventually reached Larry Weatherford, who was speaking in 2015 at the re-dedication ceremony for the Circle’s Center Monument, which had recently been restored. Weatherford is a Civil War historian, and President of the Ward Hill Lamon Civil War Roundtable and Illiana Civil War Historical Society.
Weatherford’s interest in the soldier was piqued, and he began researching Martin Pedee’s life story. “The research took a rather circuitous route,” Weatherford said, “because we kept running into dead end after dead end. That caused us to change direction time and again. But it was worth it, to keep plowing through information locally, on-line and at the National Archives, finding out more and confirming or disproving legend and lies about this man who stood only five feet three inches tall, but who made a giant impact on many people’s lives and overcame hardship after hardship.”
Weatherford’s long-time research associate, Tara Auter said, “As happens with almost all the veterans that we research in order to get military stones, we come to know them on an almost personal basis. But, I think we’ve gotten closer to Martin Pedee than any other. There was just something about him that drew us in, and we kept wanting to know more.”
Weatherford said that going back to the National Archives files to “mine” for more papers proved to be the key to unlocking more of the mystery they had encountered. Retired Judge Joseph Skowronski and Library Archivist Roberta Allen are continuing the research to attempt to fill in more of the blanks.
Once enough information was gathered and assembled, including a name change along the way, a fifty-page application for a military stone was filed with the Veterans Administration. “This is far and away the largest application we have ever filed,” Auter said. “but it was approved quickly by the VA, and Martin’s marble marker was on the way to the Land of Lincoln. The stone was unveiled and dedicated at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 20th of this year. An hour-long program was put together by Weatherford and Auter.
Civil War Living history presenters participated from the Illiana Civil War Historical Society, along with Catlin American Legion Post 776, Champaign Post 559, Westville Post 51, the Legion Riders and other area and state Legion officials. The Patriot Guard was also on hand to honor Private Pedee. The “Star Spangled Banner” and “Amazing Grace” performed by mother and daughter Kelly and Prayse Odomes echoed throughout the cemetery. Oak Ridge holds a large number of veterans’ graves and families dating back to the mid-1800’s.
Proclamations and resolutions were presented from local, state and national officials. Various readings were given, and “Taps” was played by Harold Puzey, a Navy veteran and a descendant of one of the Civil War soldiers buried in the Circle.
Weatherford told those attending that Martin Pedee was born in 1846, an enslaved person on a large plantation that stretched across the North and South Carolina border. The plantation cultivated the cash crops of cotton and rice. The rice was known as “Carolina Gold” in that region. The rice along the Pedee River was so good, it is said “that the Emperor of China said that he preferred Carolina rice to that raised in his own country.”
Martin joined the Union Army in Jacksonville, Florida in 1864. Weatherford believes that Martin may have been serving at that time as valet for a Confederate officer and escaped to join the 35th United States Colored Infantry. Martin reenlisted in 1866 and served another eight years as a Buffalo Soldier Bugler and Musician.
Auter said that it was a truly emotional experience when they learned that Martin Pedee had learned to read and write while in the Army. She said, “On his original enlistment papers he had left his “mark” as an “X.” Then we saw his signature when he re-enlisted. His name was written as big and bold as someone signing a document like the Declaration of Independence.” “And for him, I think it was that important,” Weatherford said. “Learning to read, write and experience this new found and fought for freedom was his personal declaration of independence.”
He had also changed his name to no longer reflect that of his former plantation owner, but to the name of the nearby Pedee River. “When we learned that he and other members of his regiment had put money aside from their monthly pay to hire teachers to travel along with them and help them get an education, we felt even more respect for this man,” Auter said. “He really wanted to make the most of his freedom.” Most of Martin Pedee’s time in the army after the Civil War was spent as a member of the 25th U.S. Infantry which had consolidated from other regiments. His service included assignments to Fort Duncan, Fort Davis and Fort Concho in Texas. At Fort Davis, one of the worst times of his life came as he was accused of accosting a white corporal’s wife, who identified Martin Pedee as the assailant, even though his company’s officers and men testified that he was in his barracks at the time of the alleged attack. The court-martial found him guilty, but the sentence was overturned by an Administrative Law Judge. and he went back to regular duty until his enlistment ran out. In the late autumn of 1874, Martin opted to leave the Army.
Shortly after his discharge, Martin came to Vermilion County, Illinois to farm the rich, dark soil of the Prairie State. His next move was just down the road a few miles to Catlin, where he bought a home, and opened a shop for his new barbering business. He was a member of the community band and a well-respected citizen.
“Martin was very popular in Catlin,” Weatherford said, “and in 1887 was elected as the first African-American Police Magistrate in the State of Illinois. That was quite an accomplishment. Martin Pedee and the community seem to have been ahead of their times, proving decades before Martin Luther King’s statement from his most famous speech, that it truly is possible to “judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” And that’s what happened in Catlin.” His election was heralded in newspapers nationwide, even though some papers derided the election of “a colored man” to that position.
Martin Pedee was married twice, but never had any children. Following his death in 1894, his wife Josephine continued receiving the pension he had been given for wounds from the War. The Proclamations given in Martin’s honor will be on display at the Vermilion County War Museum, and then passed along to what Weatherford called “Martin’s surrogate families,” who promised to keep the documents in the family for future generations.
“Martin’s life was one of overcoming obstacles and pushing barriers, but always with a good-natured smile,” Weatherford said. “Martin’s obituary was front page news locally and was reported in other papers across the country as well. His obituary described a casket covered in flowers from the community, and of a heartbroken wife in a “delicate condition.” Rhea Ann Weatherford, another member of the CWRT said that, “Martin’s story would make an excellent book or movie, based upon his life of tragedy and triumph.”
Thus far this spring, the Ward Hill Lamon Civil War Roundtable group has dedicated a restored stone for one of Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s “Horse Soldiers.” It marks the grave of 7th Illinois Cavalry Sergeant Major Augustus Leseure, and in Washington, D.C. they dedicated a new stone installation for Private William E. Thomas of the 1st Battalion of District of Columbia Militia. Several other ceremonies are planned for the year, mainly in the Central Illinois area.