Bart Armstong

A historian’s obsession with the Medal of Honor

Bart Armstrong has made it his mission to hunt down stories of long forgotten Canadians who received the U.S. Medal of Honor

Bart Armstrong has made it his mission to hunt down stories of long forgotten Canadians who received the U.S. Medal of Honor

Bart Armstrong sits alone at a table for four in the cafeteria of the Black Ball ferry. In front of him: a bag of chips, a pop and a book on the Civil War. It’s a history trap.

As passengers look for seats, he invites them to join. They talk about the weather and other mundane chit chat. He asks if they have a link to someone in the military. Most do.

“Tell me all about the Medal of Honor,” he says and sits back as his new table mates fumble through a definition of the honour. “For the next hour-and-a-half, they’ll get a lecture from me,” he says with a smile bursting beneath his grey moustache.

Armstrong doesn’t have a U.S. Medal of Honor, but he has discovered many. The 63-year-old tirelessly researches forgotten recipients of the award – Canadians, or would-be Canadians, laid to rest often without recognition from their own country of the battles they fought in the U.S. Civil War.

When Armstrong began his research 12 years ago, there were 54 known Canadian recipients of the Medal of Honor. His work has unearthed another 50.

In his Shelbourne Street apartment, he wades through ancestry websites and newspaper articles from the 1860s, contacts museums and archives at cities and towns across the U.S.

He speaks with people such as Diane Clarke at the Victoria Genealogical Society, who through her time spent chasing down vital records for Armstrong, has come to know him as “a bit off the wall, funny, and very passionate.”

Around Armstrong’s tiny home office – warmly referred to as the Canadian satellite office by members of the American Medal of Honor Historical Society, of which he is the sole Canadian member – sits evidence of his obsession.

File folders upon file folders, scrawled notes on sticky paper and a tiny hot plate, just big enough for a single mug of coffee, flank his computer station.

Armstrong plunks down in front of his oversized monitor to tell me the story of those whose award has gone unrecognized or remembered by anyone, including the Canadian government.

Forgotten heroes

May, 1863: the 99th Illinois infantry battles at Vicksburg – a bloodbath that leaves the entire 100 attending members of the regiment maimed or dead. Amidst a constant barrage of lead, a lone remaining troop on the Union crests the hill advancing toward Confederate lines.

“He’s too brave to kill,” the Confederates yell as the man rests his regimental colours in the parapet. The Confederates take their hats off and applaud for Quebecker, Thomas Higgins.

Later they’ll jail Higgins as a prisoner of war. And for 30 years after that, they’ll remember the bravery that transcended party lines and recommend him for a Medal of Honor.

Dennis Buckley, a farming kid from Lindsay, Ont., was barely 20 years old and providing for his entire family when the allure of a $300 paycheque drew him into the Civil War effort. As he captured the enemy flag, he turned to his Union comrades in the 136th New York Infantry and offered a jovial wave of motivation. Just then, a bullet ricocheted off the flagpole in his hand, struck him in the forehead and killed him instantly.

Of the 10,312 Civil War soldiers buried at Marietta, Ga., only two received the Medal of Honor. Buckley, who was buried under the wrong name for 140 years, was one of them. A monument to the young soldier was erected in Lindsay in 2007 following a story about Buckley, after Armstrong alerted the local paper.

But a handful of new monuments scattered across the country isn’t Armstrong’s aim. He won’t rest until he publishes his findings in a book, though he has no publisher, or even a manuscript.

“The goal is to have widespread dissemination of information about these people who we don’t know,” says Armstrong, the only known Canadian doing this kind of historical research.

“There are a hundred stories – some of them are so incredibly moving and most people in this country don’t know anything about it.”

Investigator by nature

Since I met Armstrong last November, his work has advanced.

He already knew that Canadians (or colonial citizens of the British Empire) fired shots on both sides of Civil War lines during the 1862 battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, the first duel between ironclad warships fought at the mouth of James River in Virginia. But now he knows the names of 12 Canadians who fought in the battle.

“In that regiment there were no less than 39 Canadians,” Armstrong says. “I find this sad. It’s not publicly known and it’s too bad because it’s our heritage.”

Armstrong’s own heritage is rooted in military service and a drive to investigate. A high school drop-out and one of five children born to military parents in Toronto, Armstrong has been a police officer, a private investigator, a journalist and now a historian, but always an advocate for the underdog. A seeker of truths.

Signs of searches spill from his office and across the suite – some told, others left unfinished. Among his papers is the acknowledgment from Canadian authorities that his work is adding to the annals of Canadian history.

“Dear Mr. Armstrong, I want to thank you for drawing our attention to a historical fact of which none of us at the Embassy was aware, namely that so many Canadians have been awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor,” wrote Frank McKenna, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States during his tenure in 2005.

David Frandsen, the Consul General of Canada, in a letter dated July 27 of last year, thanks Armstrong for his successful research, documentation and bringing forth the results of this work.

“It is, indeed, a worthwhile effort in the preservation of a very long and proud Canadian heritage that, unfortunately, has not been widely known,” Frandsen wrote.

After 17 years in the Canadian Forces, Armstrong retired alone as a master warrant officer. He sometimes picks up work helping a friend ship items from the U.S. and frequently visits the Port Angeles post office, another prime venue for military education.

On a recent trip to Port Angeles, Armstrong stopped a man clad in U.S. Coast Guard garb. He asked this man if he knows the story of Douglas Munro, the only member of the U.S. Coast Guard to be awarded the Medal of Honor after lodging his own boat between U.S. Marines and enemy lines during the Second World War. The coast guard member’s response is emphatic: “That’s the guy that saved 500 lives at Guadalcanal!”

While Munro’s grave in Cle Elum, Wash., may list his birthplace as Vancouver, Wash., it was actually Vancouver, B.C. – Munro was a Canuck.

Armstrong throws his head back and bugs out his eyes in imitation of how he saw the coast guard member react to the knowledge. Shocked, but not disappointed, he says.

Getting the word out

If he had the chance, Armstrong would have more of these story-telling sessions south of the border, but he has already sunk more than $10,000 into his work – in photocopied files and cross-country flights – and his resources are slim.

Merv Scott, president of the Victoria Genealogical Society, watched Armstrong miss an opportunity in March to travel to Washington D.C. during the 150th anniversary of the first awarding of the Medal of Honor. The man with what Scott describes as “an unabashed passion” couldn’t afford the trip.

“He’s connected families to their ancestors who were war heroes and they didn’t even know,” Scott says. “He just lives and breathes this stuff.”

“If there’s a fault with Bart, it might be marketing himself,” says Michael Bourque, a friend of Armstrong’s who has seen his body of research expand over the years. “He doesn’t want any of these heroes to be forgotten.”

When he unearths a tale such as that of Joseph Noil – a Nova Scotia native who earned the Medal of Honor on Boxing Day 1872 after jumping from the USS Powhattan in Portsfeld, Va., to save a drowning crew mate – he can’t help sharing.

No one knows if Noil, the only black recipient of the honour, actually received the medal before he died in 1881, but Armstrong has made it his mission to get the word out now.

Armstrong closes his binder of clippings and replaces it on the shelf crammed with books.

“The name of my book is going to be Forgotten Heroes and I don’t know if the word ‘forgotten’ is appropriate,” Armstrong says, “because I don’t know if they were ever known.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com