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Backyard gravemarker connects family, San Antonio veteran to Civil War-era soldier

Tommie Hinton Jr. had no idea a piece of rock in his backyard was the headstone for a Buffalo soldier who served during the Civil War.

SAN ANTONIO — Right before Christmas, Tommie Hinton Jr. wanted to expand the shed in his backyard. But the man who was to build it directed the U.S. Army veteran's attention to a stone in the ground.

"This is like a busted piece of rubble," Hinton said.

The 34-year-old said he'd passed by that stone in his backyard more times than he can recall since buying the home in 2011. On it reads "JAS Green USCT," words that never meant anything. 

That is, until he found out the rock was in fact a headstone. 

"Somebody's telling (me), 'You have headstone in your backyard.' There's only one other question that comes along with that," Hinton said. "Is there a body with it?"

He called the City of San Antonio's Office of Historic Preservation.

"Every day is an adventure," said Matthew Elverson, a city archaeologist. 

Elverson's first concern was the possibility of a graveyard. The homes in Hinton's neighborhood were built in the 1950s.  

"We typically don't find headstones or small cemeteries this close to downtown that haven't already been identified previously," Elverson said.

Hinton shared the same concern about his home on Spring Oak Drive.

"Are they going to have to dig up my house?" Hinton wondered.

He waited two weeks before Elverson told him no bodies were on the property.

Elverson began a tedious archival dig that produced answers. JAS GREEN USCT was Corporal James Green, of the United States Colored Troops Infantry, who had an alias for unknown reasons. 

He was also Henry James.

"Who was he? Where did he live before the Civil War?" Elverson asked.

He discovered James, or Cpl. Green, was a native of Maryland born in 1845. The Buffalo soldier was assigned to Fort Duncan in Eagle Pass, and he died in November, 1917, of nephritis.

Hinton was diagnosed with the same condition.

"I was discharged from the Army, January 2017,"  Hinton said. "So, 100 years later, I'm medically discharged from the exact disease that killed him."

Elverson and Hinton believe the previous homeowner, also a veteran, was given Green's damaged headstone. But the answers died with that man in 1999; he, too, was a veteran, having served in World War II and Korea.  

There is a theory that man did not want to see a veteran's headstone destroyed. His son, who lives in  Round Rock, offered no clues.

"Every answer just leads to more questions," Hinton said.

It also led Hinton to Eagle Pass, to walk on the grounds where Green was once assigned. The Army veteran also did a deep dive on Buffalo soldiers and their military contributions.

Meanwhile, Elverson was able to locate Green's descendants, who carry the surname of his alias.

"I was just sitting there thinking, 'Wow I can't believe this,'" Jack James said. "All these years."

James is Green's grandson. His grandfather died when James was six months old.

They heard family stories and neighbor accounts about Cpl. Green. But the family did not know Green's gravesite was in the San Antonio National Cemetery.

Great-grandson Rodney James was skeptical of the story when they got the call about the tombstone in Hinton's yard.

They saw the grave marker for the first time Wednesday evening. History and reality became overwhelming because Rodney and Jack James are both veterans.

"I was able to serve because of how he paved, helped pave the way," Rodney said. "It was a blessing just to...and it's Black History Month."

Green's grave has a headstone. So, the one from Hinton's backyard is now a gift for the San Antonio African-American Community Archive & Museum (SAAACAM).

"This is exciting for us," said Ken Steward, of the museum. "Our task is to collect, share and preserve the history of African Americans in this San Antonio area."

Steward said the headstone is three-dimensional proof of African-American contributions at their fingertips.

Hinton ended up naming his new Jeep after Cpl. Green; he even put decals on the vehicle. It gives him a chance to share the story.

"He's not related to me," Hinton said. "We may as well be family at this point."