NEWCASTLE, Neb. | For years, James Ball's name was read off with the names of other deceased military veterans during Newcastle's Memorial Day observance.
No one in attendance at those observances ever knew Ball, who died in 1904, so it's understandable that little was known about him.
Until a couple years ago, no one realized that the exact location of his grave wasn't even known.
"Nobody knew anything about it until we started hunting for it," said Gloria Oberg, president of the Dixon County Historical Society.
After two years of searching through federal, state, county and local records and countless websites, enough was learned so that Ball could be properly honored with a small bronze plaque and a marker so that his service to the country would be recognized by visitors to Calvary Cemetery.
"We put it here because it's a place people will see it," said Dennis Knudsen, chaplain of American Legion Post 62, which worked with the historical society to research Ball.
Two years ago, a Virginia writer named Stauffer Miller contacted the historical society. He identified himself as a Civil War buff, Oberg said, and was researching his grandfather's unit, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry Division, for a book he was writing.
"He was looking up all the people in his group that were in this company," Oberg said.
Ball was one of those men, and by searching the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Miller had learned that Ball had been buried in Newcastle. When Miller asked Oberg for any information she could share about Ball, she was stumped and contacted the Legion post.
"I knew James Ball's name. I read it every year," said Knudsen, who reads aloud the list of local veterans who have died to those attending the Memorial Day service.
James Ball was only a name, though. Oberg and other historical society members weren't content with that.
"We wanted him to get recognized," she said. "There's nothing more fun for a genealogist than to try to find someone."
Two years of searching turned up a trove of information. Research revealed that Ball came to Massachusetts with his family from Ireland in 1859. Ball joined the Army and served in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. He was a prisoner of war for one month, and a brother died in the notorious Confederate Andersonville prison camp in Georgia.
In 1885, Ball homesteaded 120 acres near the former town of Ionia in northern Dixon County near the Missouri River. He sold the land in 1892 for $500. He became gravely ill in early 1904 and died on May 20 of that year. An obituary from that day's edition of the Ponca, Nebraska, newspaper described Ball as "an old soldier who lived in a shanty toward the river for nearly 20 years. Fortune never smiled on James Ball, as he always dragged along a miserable existence. He was a good citizen and strictly honest." His funeral was attended by several area Civil War veterans, the newspaper reported, and he was buried in Calvary Cemetery.
With that information, the historical society thought it fitting to apply to the Veterans Administration for a white marble marker for Ball's grave.
One problem. No one knows which plot in the cemetery is his.
If Ball ever had a grave marker, it's long gone. Cemetery records at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Newcastle only go back to about 1920, so no records of his burial or the location of his grave can be found.
"Those records probably exist, we just don't know where. They're not at the church," Knudsen said.
Because the location of Ball's grave is unknown, the VA denied the application for a grave marker.
Undeterred, the historical society raised funds for one of its own. It recently placed the small plaque bearing Ball's name, year of birth, date of death and his military unit on a small piece of concrete. A Grand Army of the Republic service marker was placed with the plaque, which lies next to a gazebo that stands near the cemetery entrance.
On Sept. 30, an American Legion color guard, firing squad and bugler paid tribute to Ball at the site of his new marker.
"It means a lot," Knudsen said. "Veterans, they're a tight bunch. So when we have our ceremonies, it strikes the heart."
After two years of research, the quest to honor a relatively unknown veteran was complete, Oberg said.
"James Ball has a spot," she said.
He always has, obviously, but now people have a site where they can pay proper respect to him.