ST. AUGUSTINE – When Rob Whitehurst began looking for the grave of his great-great-grandfather, the Internet was new, with scant information, and research was challenging.
When he learned that John Alexander Whitehurst was buried on Egmont Key in the cemetery next to the lighthouse, it was like striking gold. He recorded his findings on a website, Findagrave.com and laid his search to rest.
Years passed. Then in 2015, research by The Sun about the people buried in the Egmont Key cemetery uncovered a handwritten ledger on Ancestry.com showing that 12 people, including Spanish-American War soldiers, an “Indian (Unknown),” and Whitehurst’s great-great-grandfather, had been relocated in 1909 from Egmont Key to the St. Augustine National Cemetery.
The website also pointed to Findagrave.com, and “Rob,” no last name, who was listed as the author of a brief biography of his ancestor. A 50-50 shot that his last name was Whitehurst paid off, and one Google search and two e-mails later, Rob Whitehurst felt like he had struck gold again.
His family had always heard the story that a family member’s remains had been moved, he said, but Whitehurst thought it was probably Daniel Scott Whitehurst, who died in 1862 in Pinellas County at the hands of Confederate forces who attacked him and his cousin, John Whitehurst – both Union sympathizers – while they were getting provisions on the mainland to take back to Egmont Key.
In the attack, John Whitehurst was wounded, escaped to his boat and was rescued at sea two days later and taken to Egmont Key, where he had been living with his family under the protection of the Union Navy that occupied the island.
He died from his wounds and was laid to rest in the Egmont Key cemetery, until 106 years ago.
The St. Augustine National Cemetery and its dead lie enclosed within a low, white stone wall in the historic Old Town section of the oldest city in the U.S.
Like a mini-Arlington, uniform white headstones make straight rows under the shade of moss-draped oaks.
The American flag whipped briskly in the breeze off the Matanzas River as Whitehurst walked down the central sidewalk one chilly day last week, getting his bearings. The Google Earth image he had consulted showed the back of most of the headstones, with the inscriptions on the opposite side, but he knew the grave was in section A, and he had a landmark to navigate by.
Three pyramids and an obelisk drew Whitehurst toward the south end of the cemetery. The monument is the resting place of Major Francis L. Dade and most of his regiment, killed in the Second Seminole War in 1835. Fort Dade, on Egmont Key, was named for him.
Walking toward the monument, Whitehurst called off numbers on the headstones, walking faster as he neared the number he sought. A headstone without a number, naming John O’Neil, stalled him for a moment. Then, he stopped.
He bent down to read 248, and the name, and placed his right hand on his great-great-grandfather’s headstone.
“Here he is,” he said.
The simple stone’s only inscription is “Whitehurst.”
To the right of the grave is a newer headstone, which replaced one like Whitehurst’s.
Both have shields traced around the inscription, like others in the cemetery. According to the headstone, Trooper John O’Neil, of New Mexico, fought with the 1st U.S. Volunteers cavalry regiment, E Troop, in the Spanish-American War, with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
During the war, O’Neil was transported by ship from Cuba to Egmont Key for medical treatment, but there was a lack of medical facilities on the island and he was sent back to the ship, where he died, according to the book, “Egmont Key: A History.” His remains were among the 12 burials relocated to St. Augustine. The Tampa-based Rough Riders organization placed the new headstone in 2004.
That gave Whitehurst the idea to investigate replacing John Whitehurst’s headstone, but he discovered the cost would be prohibitive without assistance from a historical organization, he said.
Still, Whitehurst’s headstone has more information than some of the other relocated Egmont Key dead.
Many headstones in the St. Augustine cemetery read “unknown” or are blank. “Indian (Unknown),” as listed on the St. Augustine cemetery ledger, is nowhere to be found. Neither is Azaline M. Bahrt, of the Egmont Key lighthouse keeper’s family, whose name is listed on a plaque at the Egmont Key cemetery, although her daughter, Marie Bahrt, is recorded at No. 316 and a related infant, Carlotte Bahrt, is at No. 287.
Private J.A. Brainerd, Company A, 26th Michigan Infantry, is at No. 283. Infantryman James Shannon, listed as Joseph Shannon on the Egmont Key plaque, is at No. 274. Seaman Robert Bentson, of the U.S. Lighthouse Tender “Laurel,” listed as Benton on the St. Augustine ledger, is at No. 276.
Like “Indian (Unknown),” “Colored Soldier (Unknown)” is nowhere to be found. Charles Williams, at No. 279, was listed as a “colored” soldier on the Egmont Key plaque, but may have been misidentified; his name appears on the St. Augustine ledger directly above the entry “Colored Soldier (Unknown);” the two lines appear to have been mistakenly combined on the Egmont Key plaque.
A few steps away from Whitehurst, at No. 256, is William Rull, who is listed as Rull/Ruth in the St. Augustine ledger, and is identified as a “colored” hospital attendant with the U.S. Marine Hospital Service on the Egmont Key plaque. Southern cemeteries in the 20th century often separated black and white burials, but not here. Whitehurst said his great-great-grandfather, a Southern resident who was a Union sympathizer and scouted for the Union Army, “was right about slavery.”
John Whitehurst’s dying wish was that his three sons, 12, 8 and 6, enter the naval service, according to a report by Lieutenant J.C. Howell, who ordered his burial. The older two were accepted the month after his death, but his youngest, Harney Butler Whitehurst, was not. He became the great-grandfather of Rob Whitehurst.
Whitehurst has visited a dozen or so cemeteries to visit family members’ graves, but this one is special.
“I didn’t really think about it until now,” Whitehurst said, looking at the headstone. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”