11 Nov 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: Walter Sowerbutts

Samuel Walter Sowerbutts (LOC)

Last year, in writing about the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I wrote about the only veteran I could find at the last minute. I was told that there were, indeed, more, and this year I want to look at one of them: a young man with the mellifluous name Samuel Walter Sowerbutts and a tragic history.

Sowerbutts was born in 1892 in Washington D.C., the youngest of five children of Samuel and Elizabeth Sowerbutts. He always went by Walter (or, S. Walter) during his life. The older Sowerbutts was in real estate and belonged to the usual civic organizations. He was also a member of the D.C. Sanitary Committee. The family lived at first in northeast Washington, but later would move to Anacostia.

Walter would receive a diploma from Business High School in 1909. Two years later, he would receive a four-year diploma. In his time at the school, he would be a cadet, but that was the extent of his military training.

Like his father, he soon became involved in one of the many clubs of the city, joining the Boys Club of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church, and being involved in organizing that club’s gatherings. In contrast to his father, the younger Sowerbutts based all of his activities around the church, being secretary of several clubs within the church and helping with fundraising for an interior renovation. The church, which still exists on Minnesota Avenue near 17th Street southeast, had been founded in the late 19th Century and served the residents of Anacostia.

Walter would find work first at the Southern Railway and later at the War Department. He would join another club related to his work: The War, State and Navy Club, in 1909. He would be a member of the executive committee of this organization.

When Woodrow Wilson declared war in April 1917, the Army was extremely small, and so it was necessary to enlist as many people as possible as quickly as possible. And so, on May 19 of that year, Walter Sowerbutts was one of a long list of young men who were drafted as 2nd Lieutenants. Sowerbutts was assigned to the 6th Army. He rapidly rose through the ranks, and was soon an Adjutant-Captain.

This is how the Washington Times noted Captain Sowerbutt’s passing on January 16, 1919 (LOC)

On October 13, Walter’s sister Margaret would die at her home. While the newspapers at the time do not mention a reason for the death, it is quite possible that she was a victim of the Spanish Flu that was wreaking havoc all around the world at the time. The death was a terrible shock to her mother, who had lost her husband just a few weeks earlier.

Less than a month later, on the day before the Armistice, Samuel Walter Sowerbutts would die in action in Jametz, just north of Verdun in the northeast of France. The news would not, however, reach his mother until much later. Only on January 8t of the following year would she have official confirmation of the death, although she had been written by some of his comrades before this.

In 1921, the body of Captain Sowerbutts was returned to the US and brought to the public Vault of Congressional Cemetery. In October of that year, he was interred in the family plot. He shares a stone with his sister there.

After his death, members of his church raised money in his name for the Shebanoyeh Tuberculosis Sanitorium in what was then Syria.

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