Civil War veteran/hero Joseph Lonsway, long accustomed to hard work, continued serving as a river guide (and remained hooked on fishing) well into old age. On two occasions, he nearly lost his life in fire-related incidents. In 1911, when he was 67, Joseph, with fellow guide and friend Joseph Calhoun, rushed to help fight a blaze that ultimately destroyed the Hotel Frontenac. They were together on an upper floor when the electricity failed, forcing them to leave the building. Calhoun urged Lonsway to depart first because he was older, but something went terribly wrong. In the end, Lonsway escaped, but Calhoun perished.
Four years later, Joseph was in a recently burned building when he suddenly fell through the floor, landing in the basement. After medical treatment for serious injuries to his legs and hips, he finished recovering at home.
In April 1916, Congress authorized a $10 monthly pension (equal to $220 in 2014) for any servicemen who had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Congressman Luther Mott initiated an investigation into Lonsway’s qualifications, and in March 1917―just one year later, and 53 years after his swim in the Blackwater River―Joseph was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the most highly valued of all medals. The official citation noted his “extraordinary heroism on 16 October 1864,” and described his brave actions.
Due to Joseph’s health concerns, the extra pension money was very important, but so too was the medal, validating the wonderful story that had been told so many times over the years. What a great gift to a man in the autumn years of life.
But the best was yet to come. In 1921, the US Congress approved an official burial ceremony of the Unknown Soldier, setting the date for Armistice Day (November 11), which marked the end of the recent world war. From an adjutant general in Washington came an invitation for Joseph Lonsway, the nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, to attend as a guest of the United States.
In the Jefferson–St. Lawrence County area, much was made of the local hero’s upcoming trip to Washington. Lonsway, now 77, was asked if he would be riding in the parade. Somewhat defiantly, he said, “I won’t be riding in the parade. I’ll be walking with the best of them.” The old man was good to his word, and then some.
On November 10, Joseph was in front of the White House―as he put it, “Just one of the crowd”―but not entirely anonymous, for he was wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor. Suddenly, a large man, who recognized the medal for what it represented, grabbed Lonsway in a huge bear hug and lifted him from the ground. Joseph was about to offer harsh words when the man identified himself as General Pershing (John J. Pershing had led the recent Allied victory in World War I).
Pershing shook Lonsway’s hand and then introduced him to President Harding. Both men fawned all over Joseph and insisted he describe his medal-winning exploits. Many photographs were taken; Pershing assured Joseph that his expenses in Washington would be paid; and Harding, upon learning that Joseph had paid for his own transportation, promised it would all be taken care of by the government.
On Armistice Day (it became Veterans Day in 1954), Lonsway marched in the parade as promised. Newspaper reports estimated that the route covered 9 miles, and Joseph returned to the city on foot, adding another 5 miles to the day’s long trek. No matter what the distance, suffice it to say that Lonsway and other elderly veterans made a lasting impression on the admiring crowd that day.
Mary Lonsway, Joseph’s wife and ten years younger, marveled later at his abilities. “I believe I’m more tired than he is. He’s on the go every minute, and I guess he’s hardly stopped moving since he left home. I don’t know how he stands it. But then he was always strong and rugged, and has lived an outdoor life.”
For a few days, Joseph was the toast of the town, attending events and sharing a personal visit with President Harding. Meanwhile, Pershing and others ensured that the old veteran was properly tended to at all times and appropriately honored for his past service.
Upon returning to the North Country, Joseph received a hero’s reception. Photographs of him were posted prominently in many communities, the very same images that filled newspapers across the country. The most common one featured Lonsway and Pershing shaking hands.
In appreciation of his treatment in Washington, Joseph sent a thank-you note to General Pershing, who responded in kind, adding, “It was a great pleasure to meet you.” What a wonderful tribute from Pershing, a man who at the time was considered the world’s greatest war hero. In fact, he and George Washington are considered by some as the best military men in our nation’s history. And still he took the time to honor a man from the trenches who more than once had risked dying in service to his country.
Without a decision made 53 years earlier, none of it would have happened, and Lonsway might well have lived a quiet life of anonymity. But faced with a choice, Joseph took a risk, in a sense choosing the road less traveled, and it made all the difference. Plunging into the Blackwater River for the Union cause revealed the man’s true character.
For a few more years, Lonsway enjoyed sharing many stories, old and new, about his time in the war, his trip to Washington, and his life on the river. His passing in January 1925 at the age of 81 was noted from coast to coast with a recounting of the exploits that once brought him national fame. In all cases, he was honored as a brave American soldier. In the village of Clayton, Joseph Lonsway Drive remains as a tribute to a homegrown hero.
Photo: Joseph Lonsway with General Pershing