During a crucial offensive in France late in World War I, as a unit of the Maryland National Guard was being stalled by enemy machine-gun fire, a young soldier from Baltimore volunteered to go over the top and attack.
Pvt. Henry G. Costin, 20, led a team of volunteers into the teeth of the barrage, firing his automatic rifle into the German nest and continuing to operate it after being hit multiple times.
Costin died of his wounds, but his act of bravery allowed for the capture of 100 enemy soldiers and the completion of the mission — one reason he was awarded the first Medal of Honor in the history of the legendary Maryland-based 29th Infantry Division and why local soldiers and their families celebrate his memory to this day.
More than 50 people were in attendance Monday to witness the laying of wreaths at Costin’s grave at Loudon Park National Cemetery, marking the 100th straight Memorial Day on which he has been so honored.
The guests also saw a presentation of colors by the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard, heard patriotic speeches and watched the unveiling of a bronze plaque from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs thanking not just fallen veterans, but also their families for their contributions to the cause of freedom.
The department, which operates 136 national cemeteries in 40 states, is dedicating identical plaques at each location this month.
Costin’s niece, Laurel Costin Bodie of Timonium, helped place two wreaths in honor of Costin on a sun-splashed morning.
Bodie, 75, said she grew up hearing stories about her late uncle, who was killed before she was born. She said her grandmother — Costin’s mother, Lizzie Costin, a Baltimore seamstress — recalled him with pride at the family dinners she hosted on many Sundays. Bodie remembered that Lizzie Costin kept a photo of Henry, who was her first child, by her bed for the rest of her life and kissed it every night before going to sleep.
Bodie also said she deeply appreciates the way the members of the 29th Infantry Division and the 5th Maryland Regiment — the Maryland-based units Costin served in — have held her uncle’s memory aloft for so many years.
The 29th Division Association and the 5th Regiment Veterans Corps, organizations dedicated to preserving the memories and traditions of those units, jointly sponsor the event each year.
“It’s always overwhelming,” Bodie said after the 90-minute ceremony. “I have so much gratitude that he’s remembered. I automatically think of my grandmother, how proud she was of him and how proud she would be now. And I’m grateful for all the veterans, so very pleased that they’ll all always be remembered.”
Historians call Costin a true son of Baltimore. He grew up near Lexington Market and attended Baltimore City College, where he starred on the baseball and football teams. He did not graduate, Bodie says, because he chose instead to enlist in the 5th Regiment Infantry of the Maryland National Guard.
Inducted on June 17, 1916, he was sent with the regiment to Eagle Pass, Texas, near the U.S.- Mexico border, where the outfit battled the paramilitary forces of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa for several months. While there, Costin won several medals for marksmanship.
The following year, he married Hythron Johnson of Baltimore, the daughter of a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard. The Maryland National Guard was mobilized for service in World War I a few days later. After the unit — by then a part of the 29th Division — left for training in Alabama on Aug. 17, 2017, it appears she never saw him again.
It was on the night of Oct. 7, 1918, that Costin’s regiment crossed the Meuse River in a surprise attack against the Germans as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. When they met unexpected resistance from mortars and machine-gun fire, Costin’s lieutenant asked for volunteers to try to dislodge the enemy emplacements.
Costin was the first to volunteer; others followed. “Advancing with his team, under terrific fire of enemy artillery, machine guns and trench mortars, he continued after all his comrades had become casualties and he himself had been seriously wounded,” his Medal of Honor citation reads. “He operated his rifle until he collapsed … He succumbed from the effects of his wounds shortly after the accomplishment of his heroic deed.”
Hythron Costin was presented with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony on April 4, 1919, at the Belvedere Hotel. It’s on display at the Maryland Museum of Military History at the 5th Regiment Armory, along with letters Costin wrote to her and other memorabilia.
When Costin’s body was later returned to Baltimore for burial, it came with great fanfare. More than 7,000 people flooded the streets on Aug. 21, 1922, as his regiment marched from downtown to his home in West Baltimore, carried his flag-draped coffin to Memorial Evangelical Church, where his funeral was held, and bore it on a caisson to Loudon Park Cemetery.
“It was the first time that the whole 5th Regiment had acted as escort at the funeral of one of its members, and one of the rare occasions in military history that a whole regiment turned out in honor of a private soldier,” read an article in the Aug. 22, 1922 Baltimore Sun.
In 1939, Costin and another World War I veteran were honored with a ceremonial marble marker at Howard and Preston streets near the armory, and Lizzie Costin christened the SS Henry Costin, a Liberty ship, at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard in Baltimore in 1943. Costin was named to the Baltimore City College Hall of Fame in 2007.
At Monday’s ceremony, Karen L. Brazell of the Department of Veterans Affairs spoke in honor of America’s fallen and described the plaque program before U.S. National Park Service Ranger Vincent Vaise delivered a stirring address on the histories of the 29th and the so-called “Dandy Fifth,” units whose stories have intertwined over the generations and which have played major roles in U.S. military operations from the Revolutionary War through World War II and more recent conflicts in the Middle East.
It shows the heroism of the average citizen. Private Costin volunteered to do what he did. That’s a big deal.— U.S. National Park Service Ranger Vincent Vaise
Costin, Vaise said, continues to be hailed each year not only because his actions epitomize the sacrifices those units have made, but because he was an ordinary local man who stepped forward of his own volition to serve a cause bigger than himself.
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“It shows the heroism of the average citizen,” Vaise said. “Private Costin volunteered to do what he did. That’s a big deal. And to stick it out as he did … he was hit more than once. Plenty of brave men would get hit once and say, ‘That’s enough,’ but he stayed, prioritizing country first so his regiment could get in there.”
Vaise added that Costin is a reflection of “Baltimore pride” — and that the 29th and 5th venerate his memory because both are in effect intergenerational families, and Costin set a standard in combat in much the same way a patriarch sets a standard of behavior for those who come after him.
It was about halfway through the ceremony when several dozen guests made their way to Costin’s gravesite, where they heard a mournful rendition of taps and Bodie and her husband, Bruce, formally paid their respects.
About 300 Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and other volunteers worked Friday to place American flags on each of the 7,005 graves at nearly 6,500 grave sites in the cemetery.
Weekend storms had blown some over, and many of the guests fanned out as they walked toward Costin’s grave to put them back where they belonged.
Michael Brophy, director of the Baltimore National Cemetery Complex, which includes Loudon, said that events like Monday’s help fulfill the sites’ purpose — as they have for a century and more.
“Nobody asked them to do that. It was out of respect,” he said.