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Honor and mystery

By BILL STEVENS
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Bario Battista discovered several months ago a plaque at James W. Huff's grave in Pine Hill Cementery noting that he had received a Medal of Honor.
He's 90 and it's hot, but Mario Battista bends down to place a flag on one of 43 graves in the American Legion section of Pine Hill Cemetery.

"It's an obligation," Battista says while pulling some weeds. "I have the time and I do it. That's all."

Several months ago, while sprucing up some grave sites, Battista strolled over to the Civil War section of the small cemetery near New Port Richey that dates back to 1926. He was stunned to discover a freshly laid bronze plaque at the base of James W. Huff's final resting place. It proclaimed that this soldier had been awarded the nation's most prestigious award for military valor: the Medal of Honor.

"I said, gee whiz, a Medal of Honor recipient lies here and nobody knows. How can this be?" recalled Battista.

If anyone would know that Pasco had been home to this war hero, it would be Battista, who since 1975 has been among Pasco County's most vocal advocates for veterans. A field artillery lieutenant in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, he has served 51 years in the American Legion and is past commander of New Port Richey's Paradise Post 79.

But Battista was not alone in his surprise. Local historians have only vague recollection of the Huff family, and there was no mention of him in the New Port Richey Press when he died. Although his name shows up in a master list of all 3,427 Medal of Honor recipients since the Civil War, it does not appear with the 23 Florida men whose names are on a shrine at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Attempts to locate any of his descendents have, so far, been unsuccessful.

Still, we know more today than we did a few weeks ago, when Battista came to the St. Petersburg Times for help.

Before the bronze plaque was planted last year, information at the grave did not even provide the date of death. It said simply that Huff had been a sergeant in Company L of the 4th U.S. Artillery. Even those details were obscured for years by dirt and mildew, before Sue Decubellis Smith in 1995 pressure-cleaned the old stones as part of her campaign to maintain the cemetery where many of her family members are buried. Neither she nor local engineer Walt Casson Jr., who has spent many hours surveying the graveyard, was aware of Huff's heroism until after Francis T. Lynch came to town.

"What I remember most about that day at the cemetery was how HOT it was," Lynch said last week by telephone from a town near Ocala where he was on vacation. "There were some jail inmates working nearby and I got them to help me plant the plaque."

Lynch had earlier written a letter to the city of New Port Richey, asking for permission to place the plaque for the Veterans Administration, which paid to have it made. He had it delivered to a mortuary near his home in Otego, N.Y., and brought it down during a vacation. Now 72, Lynch said he has an intense interest in the Civil War and has voluntarily erected 60 Medal of Honor markers. Each plaque weighs 90 pounds, and Lynch fortifies them in concrete.

He, too, was unable to provide much detail about Huff, only what is on the plaque and the U.S. Army's Web site that lists Medal of Honor recipients. Huff was awarded the medal on April 12, 1875, for "valiant conduct against the Apaches during the winter of 1872-1873." He was a sergeant in Company L of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. He was born Feb. 2, 1840, in Washington, Pa., and died Nov. 30, 1927, in Port Richey at age 87. The plaque also shows that he earned a Purple Heart, but there is no detail available about his wounds.

There were 428 Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers during the Indian Wars, which lasted from 1861 to 1898.

In the 1920 Census, Huff reported that his father and mother were born in Scotland. His wife was Lilia, who was born in Vermont; her parents were born in Massachusetts. They had two sons, James W. Huff Jr., born in 1892, and Edgar Huff, born in 1894. Both sons were born in Georgia.

On the death certificate obtained this week from the state Office of Vital Statistics, Huff's occupation was listed as soldier. He lived eight years in Port Richey, and Levin K. Vinson of Tarpon Springs served as undertaker. Vinson Funeral Home, now run by Dan Vinson, was founded in 1890.

Records from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., show that Huff entered the Union army in Vanburan, Pa., (no date) and was assigned to the 85th Pennsylvania Infantry. He transferred on Nov. 14, 1862, to the 4th Artillery. Civil War records show that his company was based in Virginia and was involved in the bombardment of Petersburg and Richmond.

If there are more detailed records of his military service, they are on film at the Veterans Administration, which told us it will take at least three months to secure -- and possibly as long as two years.

So how did he come to be in Pasco County? What became of his survivors?

Frances Mallett, a well-known local historian whose family was among the early settlers of Port Richey, was surprised to hear about the Medal of Honor. She has visited Pine Hill Cemetery occasionally since her father, Victor Clark, was buried there in 1951.

"This is quite a piece of news, isn't it?" she said. She checked with other longtime residents who remembered Ed Huff and said he lived in a shack and kept to himself. "He had a brother, but neither were married or had kids at the time. Other than that, we don't know much about them."

Vicki McDonald, the city clerk in New Port Richey, said that two or three months ago, she took a call from somebody who claimed to be a Huff relative. "They were coming down from a Northern state," and wanted to stop by the cemetery, which the city has maintained since 1940. McDonald could not recall any more about the call.

Two weeks ago, somebody placed red flowers on the grave.

Our research for this story last week included a stop at the Pasco County government center, where there were no records that the Huffs owned property -- or anything else. And at the New Port Richey library, microfilm of the New Port Richey Press did little to solve the mystery.

In the Dec. 9, 1927, issue, below the more bold headline that proclaimed James Clark's victory as mayor, there was this headline: American Legion Forms Post "Paradise."

Mario Battista's post.

-- You can contact Pasco Times Editor Bill Stevens at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at

Stevens@sptimes.com.

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