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EAST GREENWICH— Pvt. Patrick Masterson was killed during the Civil War when the hospital ship he was on sank 154 years ago. Last month, Masterson finally got a memorial plaque next to his wife’s tombstone in St. Patrick’s Cemetery. 

On December 23, 1864 the Union Navy hospital ship, the North America, sank after springing a leak off the coast of Florida on its way back to New York from Louisiana. Of the 259 people aboard the ship, including both patients and crew, 194 people would go down with the ship including Masterson. Masterson’s body was never recovered, and there was never a headstone put in place for him. That is, of course, until Ben Fraile began digging into his mother-in-law’s family history and came across Masterson’s story.

“I was bored at work one day and decided to go on ancestry.com and research my mother-in-laws family,” said Fraile. “I stumbled on the fact that her great great grandfather Patrick Masterson had served in the Third Rhode Island Calvary. I dug a little bit further and found his pension records, and that his wife had filed a widows pension around 1865 or 1866, which normally points to the fact that the husband was either killed in action or wounded in action and died from their wounds.”

Fraile is a member of the group The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a group that cleans historical cemeteries, and research people’s ancestries to find anyone that not only served in the Civil War but any war, and honor them. After noticing Masterson did not have any sort of memorial stone, Fraile decided to look into where his wife was buried. Using findagrave.com, he was able to find a Catherine Masterson at St. Patrick’s cemetery who’s stone read “Wife of Patrick Masterson.” 

“Someone had been flagging her grave, knowing Patrick was a veteran but not having anywhere else to put a memorial flag,” said Fraile. “So we contacted the Department of Veteran Affairs.  We filled out the applications along with proof that he served, and that we were working with the family. We secured a memorial stone, which is like a burial stone but it says ‘In Memorial’ instead of ‘Here Lies,’ or something along that nature.”

The ceremony to remember Masterson was held on Aug. 19. The family and the SUVCW wanted to hold the ceremony on a day that was important to the deceased. Since they did not know the exact day he was born and he died in the winter, they agreed that Aug. 19, which was Catherine and Patrick’s wedding anniversary, would be the best day. Living members of Masterson’s family, including his oldest living relative, 91-year-old Arthur Masterson, attended the ceremony. Also in attendance was the Director of the Rhode Island Veterans Association Lt. Cmdr. Kasim Yarn, East Greenwich Town Manager Gayle Corrigan, Councilman Mark Schwager, Rev. Bernard Healey from Our Lady of Mercy Church, Leo Kennedy the national organizer for the SUVCW, Department Commander for the RISUVCW Jamie McGuire, the East Greenwich Fire Department Color Guard, and members of the Rhode Island National Guard.

“The family was very very grateful,” said Fraile. “Arthur Masterson, who is 91-years-old, I have never seen that man cry and he was balling up in tears at the end of the ceremony.”

Patrick Masterson enlisted in the Rhode Island 3rd Cavalry Regiment in 1863. The regiment was a volunteer group and participated in the “Red River Campaign” which was the Union’s attempt to invade Louisiana. During this campaign they were tasked with guarding New Orleans after the Union army captured the city. 

During this time many Union soldiers became sick due to the heat and diseases from things like mosquitoes, which they were not used to being from the North. Masterson was one of these unlucky soldiers and that bad luck continued by being sent back to New York on the ill-fated hospital ship North America.

The North America left its port in New Orleans on Dec. 16, 1864 with 203 sick soldiers, 12 cabin passengers, and its 44-crew members. On Dec. 22, as the ship was passing the coast of Florida, a leak sprung that could not be stopped. No one is sure exactly how the leak started, but it would take the North America roughly 24 hours to completely sink. Of the 259 people on the boat, only 65 people made it off, and 194 went down with the ship. The RI 3rd Cavalry would lose 24 soldiers in the incident, including Masterson.

“There are various reports about what happened,” said Fraile. “There was an official board of inquiry done that was requested in 1865, but we are still trying to find the results of that inquiry. The only thing that we found was the then chief of staff of the Army wanted an inquiry. We found the names of the officers that served on the board of inquiry and there were three major generals, including Dan Butterfield who is actually the person that wrote the bugle call called ‘Taps’ that you always hear at military funerals.”

The SUVCW are a group dedicated to preserving the memory of those that served in past American wars. Anyone who would like to join, or would like to reach out to find out about a family member can do so by going to their website at risuvcw.org.

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