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.


R. Sherman said...

So I show up and find a photo of a Yankee 12 pound battery staring me in the face. That'll wake you up for sure.



Ron said...

I find history fascinating, when it goes beyond dates and events and becomes something more meaningful.

That's a great photo.

Vince said...

There is a tendency to view the military as being utterly fascinating. But the reality is mundane. The Army here or there did much of a muchness of the one there or here. That's the very nature of them. They are standardised. And given a set of circumstances there will be a written set of responses.
If I were you I'd get the then set of military instructions so you know what your sires were up to 'really'. I find it endlessly fascinating what they did to mule to get it edible. What they did to force people under pressure to insert the Minié ball right way up. The sucker is coned and acts like a stopper having travelled five inches up the barrel where the gasses expanded causing the firearm to explode. But not just in the face of the owner but taking out two or three either side.

Ed said...

Vince - Finding out the kind of stuff you mentioned is certainly the end goal but I would like to set up a framework to begin by knowing how long my ancestors served, where they served at and what battles they actually fought in at all. If the records come back and tell me that my ancestor was in charge of feeding the horses during battle, then it gives me a different area to focus on than perhaps that of a foot soldier on the front lines.

Vince said...

I think you'll find the 'where they served' to be difficult to nail. Of course they might have been depot troops. But depot troops were of a type, larcenous might be an official designation. Liberators would be another.
But, in general they were on the move. Of course you had Vicksburg, a fascinating predictor of the WW1.

Oh, FYI. They've lost a MOH recipient from the civil war some place in Iowa.

Three Score and Ten or more said...

I find the historical wars fascinating. None of my father's family were involved as all, having immigrated from Sweden at a much later period, but my mother's family was in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary war, and to alesser extent the Civil
War (her direct family had mostly moved west with the Mormons before the war started. Janet has lines in her family, on the other hand that fought on both sides in the Civil War. We moved to Georgia and were interested to find that she was "distant kin" to several of the most prominent families in the area.

Two of my sons and several of the grandkids are enthusiastic "re-enactors" . With their ancestry, when the re-eancted down here, they were in Southern Units. Up in Washington they are Union re-enators.

Ed said...

Vince - Well according to what I have read, I should figure out where they served fairly easily in their compiled war records. The trick will be in what capacity they served at the where. I've also requested their pension records, which are separate, and which often detail in what capacity they fought/worked at the where. For now though, it is just the waiting game to see what I get.

3 Score - I was hoping to get a mix but evidently I am Yankee through and through. If this project goes well, I may do one on World War I but those records are much harder to come by, or so I've read. About all my lines of my family tree have been in this country since the 1700's and earlier but I have a lot of leg work to do to track down the ancestors involved in the war of 1812 or other early wars. I do know I have at least two who fought in the Revolutionary War. Sigh, so many projects so little time.