Cpl. James B. Gresham deserves a memorial. Of that, Butler University senior History and Political Science major Nathan Hall is sure.
Why Gresham doesn’t have a memorial has become Hall’s fascination. This slight against the first Indiana soldier to die in World War I was the subject of Hall’s presentation at the 2018 Butler Undergraduate Research Conference, and it served as the topic for a talk at TEDxEvansville on October 26.
“I would love if he got a monument or some kind of memorial in Evansville,” says Hall, who, like Gresham, is from Evansville. “I think it’d be very fitting. I think he’s a piece of our culture that’s incredibly important.”
Hall became aware of Gresham during his junior year at Reitz Memorial High School. Larry Mattingly, Hall’s history teacher, offered extra credit to students who could find Gresham’s grave. Hall and his friends scoured Locust Hill Cemetery and found what they were looking for: a government-issued headstone in the middle of rows of similar headstones.
At Butler, Hall researched Gresham to find out why he’d never been given a proper memorial after his body had been returned to Evansville in 1921. He wrote up his findings as part of his junior research project in Professor Vivian Deno’s History 302 class.
Deno says Hall’s project “is testament to his determination and a historian’s intuition that there is a larger, more important story about an event or person that needs to be told.”
“He spent many long hours reaching out to various archives, and searching for missing records,” she says. “That effort paid off in a really smart and nuanced paper that makes us rethink the importance of local history. Working with students like Nathan and so many others is one of the real joys of being a historian at an institution like Butler. Undergraduate research has important contributions to make to the field.”
In his research, Hall discovered that a combination of distraction and neglect were the reasons Gresham never got his due.
First, in 1922, the city’s powerful mayor, Benjamin Bosse, died, which shifted Evansville’s focus away from Gresham. Then the Depression hit. In 1936, the city again took up Gresham’s cause. But in 1937, as plans developed to build a plaza dedicated to Gresham on the Ohio River, the river flooded. A third of the city’s homes were destroyed.
The 1940s saw Evansville focused on the war effort.
And daily life went on.
“It seemed several times to be a surefire thing,” Hall says. “But there was no end result. I wanted to unpack that mystery as best I could. I don’t think I totally have, but even to get to the point where I am now where I can pretty confidently say that there were all these other things that happened that buried his memory – that’s where I’ve gotten.”
The more Hall found, the more interested he became in the issue of how and why we as a society choose to remember—or forget—different parts of our history
And when Hall’s sister suggested he apply to speak at the TEDxEvansville event, he did and was excited to be selected. (TED—Technology, Entertainment, and Design—is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. (Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.)
Hall, who graduates in December and plans to go to law school next fall, says the call to action in his talk isn’t so much about the fact that there should be a monument for Gresham.
“It’s that we need to understand that if something important like this gets lost or swept under the rug, we can get it back or remember it,” he says.