Mysterious headstone sees the light of day

By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Rick Lewis with the headstone Eric Ward found while cleaning out a house in South Johnson City. PHOTO BY JEFF DERBY

When you get into the business of buying and renovating homes, you’re likely to come across your fair share of odd items. But an item Eric Ward stumbled upon recently in the basement of a home he purchased in South Johnson City was beyond remarkable.

Ward was going through the basement of a home he purchased when he found a large slab of white marble, which stood about four feet tall. On the face of the monument, he was barely able to make out some faded lettering: “Christian Daniels, 10th Ohio Battery.”

Ward took the monument to the home of his friend Rick Lewis, who offered to store it while they tried to figure out exactly what it was and who it might belong to. Subsequent research turned up some answers, but also raised questions about how the headstone ended up in a basement in South Johnson City.

As it turned out, Christian Daniels was a Union soldier during the Civil War, and his unit – the 10th Ohio Battery – was stationed near Mountain City. The light artillery unit didn’t lose a single soldier in combat, but 18 members of the unit died of disease, including Daniels.

Daniels’ fate was not uncommon among men who served during the Civil War. Approximately two-thirds of the 620,000 military deaths recorded during the Civil War were from diseases like measles, typhoid fever and pneumonia.

Daniels was buried in a cemetery near a town called Smith’s Mill following his death on April 8, 1865. According to records, an unknown individual placed an order on Nov. 29, 1879, for a headstone to be placed on Daniels’ grave. By that point, the town of Smith’s Mill had been renamed to Butler in honor of Roderick R. Butler of Johnson County, a commander in the Union Army who went on to serve in the state legislature.

Lewis assumes that Daniels’ headstone remained undisturbed in that quiet little country cemetery through the end of World War II until construction on the Watauga Dam was completed in 1948. At that time, the entire town of Butler, with a population of around 600 people, was relocated to higher ground as the town and surrounding area was slowly submerged under what is now Watauga Lake.

During this time, just over 1,200 graves were relocated. The bodies of some soldiers were exhumed during this time and relocated to national cemeteries, but for whatever reason, Daniels was left behind as the water slowly rose over his final resting place.

A closer look at the faded lettering on the headstone.

For the next 35 years, Daniels rested under the murky waters of Watauga Lake, but that all changed in 1983 when the TVA drew down Watauga Lake for a brief time to do some work on the dam. During this time, the town of Old Butler was exposed, and former residents were allowed to visit the site and reminisce among buildings that had remained intact despite being underwater for over three decades.

Lewis believes it was during this timeframe that somebody might have happened upon Daniels’ headstone and took it with them. Shortly after, the water levels rose, and Old Butler has rested under Watauga Lake ever since.

No matter when the headstone was taken, one thing became clear – Ward had uncovered a piece of history. After learning more about the headstone, the two men turned the monument over to the proper authorities.

The headstone is property of the United States government, and after sitting either underwater or under wraps for at least 72 years, Ward and Lewis are hoping the stone will soon see the light of day. There is a possibility the headstone could be placed at the Mountain Home National Cemetery, but given the fact that Daniels’ remains are accounted for under Watauga Lake, that may not be an option. Johnson City’s Oak Hill Cemetery, which contains the remains of 20 other Union soldiers, is another possible destination.

As the fate of the headstone is decided, Ward and Lewis are left with questions. Who removed the headstone? Did it happen before Butler was flooded in 1948 or during the drawdown in 1983? How did it end up in Johnson City?

Anyone with any information can call our office at 423.979.1300 or email


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