TRACING A CIVIL WAR SOLDIER OR SAILOR
by Ann Chandonnet
As her cousin Helen lifted the pot lid aside, Thirza Gibson could see that the fire kindled for breakfast was now mere embers. Thirza moved closer to the big stove to warm her hands, chilled from her stint in George Foster’s attic sorting through his and his mother Eliza’s things. She lowered her eyes to her hands, chafing them.
When she lifted her eyes again, she was shocked to see Helen dropping in envelopes. Envelopes with stamps from the 1860s. Parcels with New Orleans postmarkets. Pocket journals, deeds, fans engraved with Abraham Lincoln’s sad-eyed portrait–all dropped into the stove.
“Wait!” Thirza cried. “What are you doing?”
Helen paused over the basket of dusty papers she was carrying. “No one wants this old stuff,” she replied, smoothing back her hair with her free hand.
“You’re wrong! I do,” exclaimed Thirza, skirting the stove, reaching toward the wicker basket. “Eliza is my grandmother. How dare you?”
Shocked at being contradicted, Helen pushed the basket toward Thirza almost as if it burned her palm.
It was 1936. George, Eliza’s only son, had just gone to his last reward. Eliza, a New England mill girl, wife and widow, had perished of consumption in 1867. George scarcely remembered her, but he and his uncle, Andrew Bean, had preserved her diaries, rent receipts– even the black silk veil she had sewn to wear to her husband’s funeral. Eliza’s faithful Henry had died at the Third Battle of Winchester–a battle no one remembered now.
It’s a truism of family trees that most individuals do not know their grandmother’s maiden name. One of the reasons for this lack of knowledge is the constant battle against clutter we all commonly wage. If genealogical records and knowledge have been casualties of this war in your family, it’s important to know that such losses do not have to be permanent.
If, for example, one of your ancestors served in the War Between the States, and you want to know more about his military or naval career, here are some research tips.
Begin by consulting Civil War Soldiers & Sailors (www.cwss). This federal website is one of the most comprehensive listings of veterans. CWSS contains service records for each regiment, North or South, as well as the names of the individuals in specific companies. If your ancestor is listed, you can find here his rank at enlisting and his rank at mustering out. If your ancestor’s name doesn’t come up readily at this site, don’t despair. Names were often misspelled and/or duplicated, so that Irwin D. Johnson, Erwin Johnson and Irvin W. Jonson are all the same individual.
Another vital source of information are regimental histories. About 80 percent of all regiments boast such histories written by a member of the regiment. Although the original editions may be out of print, Higginson Book Co. (www.higginsonbooks.com) has published facsimiles of many of these volumes. Higginson is also a trustworthy source for records, letters and journals from prisons at Andersonville, Camp Douglas (Chicago), Richmond, and Elmira, New York.
Once you have names to work with, the next step is to Interview the oldest member of your extended family.
If you know your ancestor’s place of birth, you can also consult city directories or U.S. Census records for additional details. Twenty years ago, research would have necessitated travel to the town or county to view such records, but today many of these documents are readily available on the Internet.
To get a feel for what your ancestor experienced, you might also attend a reenactment. The Iredell Blues (4th North Carolina, Co. A) schedule reenactments every August at the Allison Woods Living History event in Statesville, N.C. The three-day weekend includes activities for children such as a watermelon seed spitting competition and a bingo game using period pictures instead of numbers. Adults can witness mock conflict, view an 1860s fashion show or take a lantern tour on the thousand acres of pasture and woods set aside for conservation by the Allison family. Visit http://www.iredellblues.com or historynet.com for details.
Spending a few hours in a genealogical library can be quite productive. Where I live now, the Patrick Beaver Memorial Library (Hickory, NC) houses a large collection of reference materials in a special room on its upper floor. Just inside its main entrance, the Catawba County Museum of History (Newton) features a comfortable room stuffed with reference books, bound volumes of newspapers, file cabinets of photos and other materials invaluable for genealogical research. The museum is a major repository of Civil War objects including a colonel’s field desk and a Colt 45 swiped from Stoneman’s Raiders by a Newton lad. Family-file research requests are welcome, and staff assistance is available for $10 an hour. Most communities have similar repositories of genealogical and historical information.
One of the most enjoyable options for this sort of research is to walk a battlefield or “viewshed.” The Civil War Preservation Trust (www.civilwar.org; 1-888-606-1400) is engaged in saving hallowed ground like the Snyder Farm at Gettysburg from being taken over by shopping malls, casinos or transmission lines. CWPT installs self-guided walking tours with interpretive markers. For instance, you can walk a one-mile trail on Rose Hill Farm in Winchester, Virginia, scene of heavy fighting during the First Battle of Kernstown. The property is owned by the Museum of the Shenandoah; for more information, http://www.shenandoahvalleymuseum.org.
Similarly, in Kentucky, Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site surrounds the historic H.P. Bottoms House. The 12 miles of interpretive trails at this 140-acre site–part of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s autumn 1862 invasion of Kentucky– are considered one of the best interpretive trail systems in the country. Visit the website at http://www.perryvillebattlefield.org or call 859-332-8631.
Another source for images of everyday Civil War life and camp life are drawings made on the spot. Artist Joseph Becker worked for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the war. Becker’s great-great-granddaughter, Sheila Gallagher, has compiled most of his sketches and those of other illustrators, a total of nearly 700 drawings. The images in the Becker collection may be used for non-profit lectures and research. See http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/ or http://www.firsthandexhibit.org/
The Civil War Sesquicentennial is reviving interest in state and local history and historic preservation. Those interested can attend a program at a Civil War landmark, a living history museum like Latta Plantation (Huntersville, NC) or a Civil War Round Table.
Finally, with a little online research you can locate and Visit a Civil War cemetery with your grandchild. St. Luke’s (Lincolnton, NC) contains Confederate graves.
Bio: Nonfiction writer and poet Ann Chandonnet, a resident of Vale, is co-author with her third cousin Roberta Pevear of the 2010 book, “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 (Bethel Historical Society). In 2066, Ann retired to Vale with her husband, a prize-winning fiction writer, after 34 years in Alaska.