LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — In life, Sergeant Robert McPhelan was decorated with the highest honor granted for gallantry and bravery. In his death, he was placed in a “potter’s field” at Calvary Cemetery in Lansing, Kansas.
Sgt. McPhelan, an Irish immigrant, received his Medal of Honor in 1877 for his role in the Indian Campaigns of the day, specifically the Battle of Cedar Creek, Montana. It brought about the surrender of Sitting Bull.
The Army soldier landed at Ft. Leavenworth, where he served until he succumbed to war wounds in 1884. He was laid to rest in a non-descript part of a Lansing cemetery.
“We’re not sure why he ended up there, whether he didn’t have the funds, or whether he had a falling out with the church,” said Michelle Cebe, who is the area coordinator for Wreaths Across America.
“No veteran should be in a potter’s field, and especially a Medal of Honor recipient.”
It was one of Cebe’s volunteers who happened upon the gravesite while scouting the cemetery for graves eligible for wreaths at Christmas. When the organization learned of the discovery, it went to work to raise money to have Sgt. McPhelan’s remains moved to a place of honor: The Leavenworth National Cemetery.
Meanwhile in Denver, a great-great-grandaughter had gone to work 10 years earlier to learn more about the family veteran. Lori Rogers was doing genealogy when she discovered him.
“Ever since we found him, we can’t talk about him without getting choked up.”
Organizers of his reinternment wanted family to give its approval and be there for the full military honors accompanying Sgt. McPhelan to his new resting place. Using genealogy techniques, they tracked Rogers down and she and other family members couldn’t be more grateful. Another great-great-grandaughter, and a three times great-granddaughter traveled to Leavenworth to be a part of the ceremonies.
Accompanied by Patriot Guard members and others, Sgt. McPhelan’s remains were taken to the Leavenworth National Cemetery to join thousands of fellow veterans.
A 21-gun salute, a ceremony, and taps on a beautiful spring day were a welcomed relief for family and others who worked to bring the Medal of Honor winner home.
“We were back here six years ago and we said the same thing out loud,” Rogers recalled. “We wish he could be moved. And somebody heard us. Six years later.”
She looked skyward when she said those words. Whether divine intervention, or sheer luck and attentiveness, Sgt. McPhelan was given a hero’s farewell and a new resting place of honor.