The search for Pvt. James Miller: Local historian finds Washington County native buried in unmarked New York grave

Zach Vance • Updated Jun 19, 2018 at 11:21 PM

An eight-year quest to find the remains of a Washington County native and World War I U.S. Army veteran culminated Tuesday at the Deansboro Village Cemetery in Kirkland, New York.

Because of Johnson City military historian Allen Jackson’s years of diligent research, Pvt. James Miller — a Jonesborough native who served in France as a wagoner for the 16th Infantry Regiment Supply Company — finally got a headstone marking his final resting place.

With Miller’s great, great niece from Anniston, Alabama, sitting near the new headstone, Jackson and members of the American Legion Post 24, the American Legion Post 569, and the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 9 from Johnson City traveled to the New York cemetery where they conducted a military ceremony on Tuesday.

Born in 1896, Miller grew up in the Lamar Community of Jonesborough. After his mother’s death in 1911, Miller’s father moved the family to Anniston, Alabama, where Miller later befriended some soldiers from Missouri.

When it was time for the soldiers to go back to Missouri, Miller went with them. At the age of 17, like many teenagers at that time, Miller lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks in Lemay, St. Louis.

Miller was first assigned to Company H, 30th Infantry Regiment before being transferred to the 39th Infantry Regiment in 1917.

“The 39th was a new regiment being mobilized at Camp Syracuse, New York. Soldiers from the 30th were selected to be its founding troops and to help train the new recruits that were being enlisted for the regiment,” Jackson wrote in a memo describing Miller’s life.

“It was here at Camp Syracuse that James met the love of his life, Clara Belle, and they were married on 17 October 1917 in Syracuse, New York.” 

Just a month into their marriage, Miller was recruited by the 16th Infantry Regiment and sent to France where he was assigned to Company M, 16th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade, 1st Expeditionary Division.

“The Supply Company of the 16th Regiment was in need of soldiers that could handle a wagon and a team of horses, so a call went out to the regiment for such men,” Jackson wrote in his memo.

On Dec. 29, 1917, Miller became a wagoner and kept his men supplied until his death of lobar pneumonia on Oct. 5, 1918, near Lorraine, France. He was just 22 years old and had served in four campaigns: Mondider-Noyon Operation, Aisne-Marne Offensive, St. Mihiel Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Miller was temporarily interred in a blanket at French Military Cemetery #290 with full military honors.

Just one day short of the third anniversary of his death, Miller was disinterred, placed in a casket and transferred to Antwerp, Belgium for his voyage home aboard the United States Army transport ship St. Mihiel.

“It was agreed upon with Clara (his wife) and Jake (his father) that James would be returned to him in Alabama. Jake became seriously ill prior to James returning to New York, and he sent Clara a telegram telling her to receive James,” Jackson wrote in his memo.

“Clara then sent a telegram to the United States Army Quartermaster at Brooklyn, New York on 18 December asking them to hold James there until she could make final arrangements.”

Jackson discovered that the U.S. Army conducted a memorial service for James at Pier #2 on the Army Base at Brooklyn, New York, at 3 p.m. Dec. 21, 1921, prior to him being shipped out on the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad.

That same day, Clara signed for James and he was interred the following morning at an, up until now, undisclosed location with private services.

“I ordered what’s called a burial file on him. It’s a 40-page file from the archives, and the archives told me everything I needed to know except it ended on Dec. 21, 1921. That’s when he was returned to Clinton, New York, and his wife, who had remarried, took his remains. Then she buried him, but never marked the grave and never told the family what she had done with (Miller),” Jackson said.

Clara died in 1941 and was buried at the Deansboro Village Cemetery, but it took a while for Jackson to find that out.

“It took me a long time to find that unmarked grave because there was no reference at all to a ‘Miller’ because (Clara) is actually buried under her maiden name, Mitchell,” Jackson said.

Tracking her through ancestry websites and FindAGrave.com, Jackson eventually found Clara Mitchell’s Deansboro grave online, but it included no photo.

Jackson then got “a traveling salesman” to stop by the cemetery and take a wide-angle photo of Clara’s grave.

“He said there is no ‘James Miller’ buried in Deansboro that he could find, but right beside her grave was an American Legion Bronze Medallion,” Jackson said.

“In World War I and World War II, the American Legions, when they did the service for a veteran, they would place that marker there. It’s on a steel rod. I saw that and knew it wasn’t for (Clara’s) second husband because he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. So I knew it had to be for James.”

After calling some local funeral homes, Jackson was put in contact with Mark Goodson, a caretaker and president of the Deansboro Cemetery Association.

“He went through the files and came back to me, saying ‘We have no reference of a James Miller in this cemetery.’ Then I explained to him (about the American Legion marker),” Jackson said.

“He goes, ‘Well, let me go back through them and look again.’ He called me a few hours later and said he picked up up the miscellaneous folder and found a little card in there, probably 2-by-3 inches, and it has ‘James Miller D: 5 October 1918.’

“I said that’s him!

“’He goes, ‘Well how do you know that’s him?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s James Miller and 5 October 1918 is the day he died. I did not tell you the date that he died. So how many James Millers died in World War I that died in 1918 that you have buried in your cemetery?”

Goodson responded, “Probably this one.”

Johnson City Press Videos