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Historian's quest uncovers lives of honored soldiers

July 27, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

When Donald E. Brown discovered that Washington County was the likely birthplace of two previously unrecognized Medal of Honor winners, he wasn't content to simply document their local connection.

He wanted to learn everything he could about the men. Where did they live? Whom did they marry? And, especially, what heroic deeds earned them the military's highest decoration?

Since March, the Army veteran and retired AC&T accounts receivable worker has been on a quest to answer those questions and more.

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Brown tracked down public documents on Seth Lathrop Weld of Sandy Hook and John W. Wagner of Clear Spring such as military records, birth records and U.S. Census data.

Brown even made two trips to Altamont, N.C, where Weld grew up, and talked to Weld's grandson, Seth L. Weld III, in Overland Park, Kan.

It was the first time the avid historian did research by telephone, preferring old-fashioned letter writing instead. He still doesn't use a computer, unless you count the one his daughter used to type his hand-written manuscript.

"It's not in my nature," he said.

Brown, 72, of Boonsboro, always has been interested in history and researched his own geneaology in the 1980s.

He started digging into someone else's past for the first time in the late 1990s, after he met the family of Hagerstown Medal of Honor winner William O. Wilson.

Brown found Wilson's unmarked grave at Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown and helped Brothers United Who Dare to Care establish a memorial for Wilson at the intersection of Jonathan Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Wilson's history was relatively easy to come by, coming straight from Wilson's only living daughter, 90-year-old Anna V. Jones of Hagerstown.

Unraveling the stories of the two other Washington County Medal of Honor winners proved to be more challenging.

Brown first learned about the men and their possible connection to Washington County from a story in The Herald-Mail.

All Brown had to go on were short entries from a book listing the 3,426 Medal of Honor recipients. Yet, he was able to learn a lot about the two men, especially Weld.

Less is known about the life of Wagner. The trail on the Civil War soldier went cold when Brown learned that Wagner died childless in Boston, leaving no descendants.

But Brown found a wealth of information about Weld and his descendants.

"You get Don on something and he goes at it," said John Frye, historian at the Western Maryland Room at Washington County Free Library. "That's a great labor of love."

Brown wrote a 16-page summary of Weld's life he titled "Sandy Hook's Own: The Saga of Seth Lathrop Weld and His Medal of Honor." Brown plans to donate the manuscript to the library.

"I always wanted to do something that was permanent," he said. "I don't feel pride, but I feel a sense of satisfaction that it's done."

Brown also hopes it will get more people interested in history.

"I'm very concerned about the lackadaisical attitude toward our history, especially our military people," he said. "The Medal of Honor is the ultimate recognition of military achievement."

These two medal winners had their roots in Washington County.

"We should know them and we should honor them," Brown said.

Frye said Brown's donation will help draw attention to the history of the southern part of the county, which was thriving in the 19th century when it was the terminus for the B&O Railroad.

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