Wednesday, February 29, 2012
The Civil War & My Family Tree: Part 1
In researching my family tree over the years, I have run across the veteran ancestor a time or two. I would make a note of it and then move on, not really diving into the specifics of their military career. But eventually several things happened that caused me to re-evaluate the role of my ancestors in past wars.
The first thing that started this train of thought rolling was when my grandparents gave me some old pictures of my great grandfather of him during World War I and his time in France. Since I have many fond memories of my great grandfather when he was alive, it was interesting reconciling those with the pictures I saw from his war experience, something he never talked about.
Another year would go by before I picked up the book 'Confederates In My Attic' by Tony Horwitz, which describes his journey through the south to understand how the Civil War still effects people to this day. In it he interviews many people with ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Those people knew what battles their ancestors fought and even specific locations on large battlefields where their ancestors had fought, were injured and even died. I thought that was pretty interesting knowledge.
Shortly after the book, I revisited the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War which I have available through my Netflix account. Again I was captivated by the old pictures and the stories of the people who fought in it. Suddenly the Civil War began to take on a new light for me. No longer was it a war over state rights and later slavery that happened long ago in the past. Now it began to have flesh and stories of tremendous passion and sacrifice by those who lived it.
I found myself needing to look much deeper into my ancestors and their involvement in the Civil War. Perhaps even find a story of great passion or sacrifice of my own. In my family tree, the generation of fighting age during the time of the Civil War belongs to that of my 3rd great grandfathers. Their sons were too young or not yet born and though I have found a few of their fathers who registered, I haven't found one that served. But of my 16 great-great-great-grandfathers, I have found 8 that fought in the Civil War and survived.
At first I found it amazing that half of my 3rd great grandfathers fought in the Civil War but I was even more amazed that they all survived. But then I thought a little deeper and rationalized an explanation. Because the Civil War front lines were largely fought by boys using today's standards, those that died had their family trees truncated at themselves. Had one of my ancestors died in the Civil War, the chances of me existing would be very slim. Yes at least two of my 2nd great grandfathers had been born but 6 of them had not been. Those two that had been born might have made entirely different choices in life if they had lost their fathers at an early age to war. So merely by me existing, I know it was because my ancestors survived the war. Billions of people probably don't exist today because their potential ancestor didn't survive. Very heady stuff indeed.
After identifying my eight ancestors who fought in the Civil War, the next step was to learn more about their involvement. Through online records, I could learn which regiment my ancestor served in and thus the history of that regiment for seven of my eight veteran ancestors. The eight one being my brick wall Joseph Baker who died at age 35 only 17 years after the end of the war and whom I know so little about including where he served or lived before the war. For those whom I know fought in a certain regiment, knowing the regiment's fighting history doesn't guarantee I know which battles my ancestor fought in because they may have not been on the front lines that day or might have been on medical leave. The only way to find out for sure was to request copies of their records from the National Archives in Washington D.C. where they have been preserved.
I sent out seven requests and await their arrival. From past experience, it could be a long wait of two or three months and only one month has passed thus far. I have been notified they received them and I have had one response back on an ancestor's files who aren't at the National Archives where by national decree they should be. Fortunately they exist and are still in the Veterans Administration Archives and available by request under the Freedom of Information Act. It is my first request under said act but it was sent last week and I await those results as well. My hope is to parse through this information when it arrives and over time write a series of posts on my ancestors who fought in the Civil War and their experiences. I look forward to the journey.