I went to Washington, D.C., when I was in sixth grade. It wasn't a big family vacation; I stayed part of the summer with cousins who lived in nearby Arlington, Va. We toured Ford's Theater, the Watergate Hotel, the National Air and Space Museum, and more monuments than I can remember. Although I took in a lot of our nation's history that summer, the thing that resonated most with me was something my 13-year-old cousin said at Arlington National Cemetery. “You know,” he said. “I've never been here before.” He'd lived there all his life. How could he have avoided it? This has always made me wonder what I was missing at home. I moved to Maryville, Mo., in 2005 and found it was once home to two Missouri governors, an American Thoroughbred that won the Kentucky Derby in 1904, Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and George S.E. Vaughan. There are moments in history so profound, so noteworthy, they're taught in every elementary school in the country. You just never expect that moment to have any connection to your town. George S.E. Vaughan was born Oct. 12, 1823, in Virginia, and came to Missouri with his parents in 1829. During the Civil War, Vaughan joined the Confederate Army and was soon after captured by Union forces, charged as a spy and tossed into jail. After a jury found Vaughan guilty of spying, another friend, John B. Henderson of St. Louis - at this point a U.S. senator - pleaded with President Abraham Lincoln for a retrial, which Lincoln granted. Another jury also found Vaughan guilty of being a spy. After Lincoln agreed to give Vaughan a third trial, Vaughan was again found guilty. Awful to be him. Henderson then asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to pardon Vaughan, but Stanton refused. Two days before Vaughan's scheduled death by firing squad, Henderson went to Lincoln one last time. According to the May 26, 1884, edition of the Nodaway Democrat, “Henderson again went to the White House on April 14, 1865. Lincoln was ready to go to the theater but took pen in hand and wrote a full pardon for George and handed it to Senator Henderson. It may have been Lincoln's last official act.” A few hours later, President Lincoln died of a gunshot wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre. However, the pardon stood. Vaughan was a free man. After the war, Vaughan moved to Nodaway County, Mo., bought a farm north of Maryville, and died 34 years later at 76 on Aug. 26, 1899. He was buried on Aug. 31, according to an obituary in the Maryville Republican. Seriously. How cool is that? Vaughan is buried in Maryville's Oak Hill Cemetery. On Vaughan's stone a Masonic symbol is carved over the simple message, “Geo. E.S. Vaughan, Died Aug. 26, 1899, Aged 76 Yrs.” Nothing about his Confederate Army service, nothing about being part of the last official act of President Abraham Lincoln. Just the basics. RIP, George.
Jason Offutt's latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.