Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Never-Ending Treasure Hunt: How To Track War Ancestors

How do you track your Civil War ancestors?  This question arose once again during a presentation I gave recently, so it’s time to blog the answer.  First, let me say that tracking down Civil War ancestors is an ongoing process. One thing leads to another. Before you know it, you’re on a never-ending treasure hunt. Here are a few tips that might help:
A Soldier's Application for Pension
by my N.C. ancestor, David Welborn,
 dated 1917. The Confederate veteran
was then 74 and disabled.

Dig through all that stuff great grandma or some other relative left behind.  Read every letter, examine every document, and pore over every trinket.  You might discover something awesome. My father left behind boxes of documents and artifacts that I regrettably waited forty years to examine. That's how I found a few authentic Civil War letters and priceless (to me anyway) genealogical information. 

Ask questions of older relatives by phone, e-mail or in person.  Attend family reunions. Stories and show-and-tell moments can abound. 

Visit graveyards.  Ancestors' headstones sometimes reveal where and when Civil War veterans died in battle, their regiments and companies, as well as other details.

Visit state archives and universities with large historical collections in states where your ancestors lived.  I’ve spent many days combing through materials at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among other places. Staffs are very helpful. I’ve not only found documents that belonged to my family, but hints of other documents to track down. (See application for Civil War pension above left. More on this in a later blog.)  Remember Civil War records were written by hand and in haste, so names might be misspelled. 

Go online.  It’s amazing how many resources you can find on the Web to aid your hunt. Some are free; others have a price.  The more specific the phrases you put in search engines, the more gratifying the results.  I found copies of Civil War letters from ancestors through the online records of several universities.  Even if you only find an index of documents, something might provide a map to treasure. You can order copies of some documents, usually for a small fee.  I’ve done this many times.

Burn some rubber.  I’ve done my highest-return sleuthing in little libraries at such out-of-the-way places as the basement of the Warren County Library in Warrenton, N.C., and the library stacks at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C.  I’ve found ancestors’ war records, newspaper clips of interviews with ancestors, as well as family land deeds, wills and local census records. At Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park in Virginia, I found a list of Confederates issued parole passes assuring safe passage home after Lee’s surrender to Grant.  Several ancestors were on the list.

Finally, be persistent and follow up all leads; be prepared to invest time and money in your search; and, organize your documents, notes and written responses to questions in accessible files.  I drew a family tree for easy reference.  I also made a Civil War timeline with the dates my ancestors began military duty, the battles in which they participated, their deaths, their pension applications, their war injuries, and records of equipment issues. I update and expand the timeline regularly.  

Despite many frustrations, my Civil War treasure hunting has yielded valuable and often surprising information and insights into my family, myself, the Civil War and the story of America.  You’ll likely experience the same.  Go for it. 

Main Street in picturesque
Georgetown, South Carolina

NOTE:  I gave my most recent Civil War presentation in coastal Georgetown, South Carolina.  Never been?  Well, put a trip to the historic seaport along Winyah Bay on your “To Do" list right now.  The town offers quaint shops, unique restaurants and plenty of lovely, old buildings. See PHOTOS page.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Mysterious Phone Caller Answers A Burning Question

“Are Southerners embarrassed by the Civil War?” When I posed this question in a recent blog, my friend Terry, a retired South Carolina newspaper editor, replied that the word “embarrassment” wasn’t the word “that describes most Southerners' feelings about the civil war.  I think 'ambivalence' is a better descriptive.”

I thought Terry was right, until I received a mysterious phone call.

A slave market in ancient Rome. New York 
Public Library.  A body of laws and traditions
 regulated auctions 2,000 years ago. 

I was working at home one morning when the phone rang.  An elderly gentleman introduced himself (though I can't recall his name) in a slow and mannerly drawl. He wanted to talk about my opinion piece that a local newspaper had published that day.  

In the article, I argued that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which ended with 620,000 American deaths and the economic ruin of the South, presented a perfect opportunity to discuss the war’s causes. I said that slavery lay at the heart of all the reasons many Southerners currently cite:  states’ rights, economic necessity or Northern aggression. I concluded that we couldn't ignore slavery as a cause of the war, if not the
cause. My mysterious phone caller did not agree.  I can't remember his exact words, but the following reflects the essence of our conversation:

An 1856 wood engraving of a slave
 auction in Richmond, Virginia. 
Library of Congress Prints and
 Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 

“I want to make three points,” the caller said. He apparently had carefully thought through the argument he was unfolding or had made it many times in the past.

“First, slavery didn’t exist only in America,” he said. “Slavery has existed throughout recorded history, even in ancient Mesopotamia. People aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be; they don’t know that.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Slavery's been around since the dawn of man  and slavery exists today. I guess we concern ourselves mostly with slavery in America, since slavery ended here fairly recently. And,” I added, “Our country was founded as the land of the free.”

My clearly educated caller fell silent.  After more chit-chat about history, he said, “Second, slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War. We had to protect our constitutionally guaranteed states’ rights. The North tried to do away with our rights, so we had no choice but to fight. We believed in the Constitution; they apparently didn’t.”

I agreed the Founding Fathers made compromises to get the U.S. Constitution signed, so they left the poisonous issue of slavery for later generations to work out, but I wasn’t sure that war was the only answer.

My caller then made his third point, apparently saved as a slam-dunk finale.

“The attributes of some people leave them suited to be slaves,” he said. “They are inferior; they lack intelligence and ability."

"Do you mean African Americans?" I asked incredulously.

"You can see it today," he continued. "They can’t do well in school; they can’t hold good jobs; they can't take care of their families.”

I wanted to hang up, but I've always learned something when I listen, especially when listening was painful or infuriating, so I didn't.  I responded with measured words that some of the smartest, most able people I know are African Americans, including the current President. In my rebuttal, I also pointed out that when the Romans enslaved a Greek, the Romans obviously valued the Greek's skills, education and intelligence by making him tutor children of the rich and powerful. I was trying to make the point that the Greeks were smart and able even if the Romans made them slaves.  

The caller pushed on saying that if you look at how African Americans live today, with their poverty, their violence and their inability to make it in school..."some groups of people are suited to be slaves.” 

I had the sinking feeling he had missed my point about the Romans and the Greeks. I could only respond, as firmly as possible without offending my earnest, genteel caller, that even it he were right – and I emphatically did not think so – that wouldn’t make slavery OK.

After more convoluted conversation, the man ended his call by saying, “Thank you for talking with me. You’ve been very generous with your information and your time.”

I wandered into the kitchen dazed and confused. I told my husband Barry about the strange call.

“But what was his point?” Barry asked. 

“I honestly don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t know if he was lonely and just wanted to talk, or if he was trying to change my mind, or if he was wrestling with his own demons.”

Looking back on the phone call, I’m reminded of the maxim, Everybody’s got to look down on somebody.  I think my gentleman caller had long ago concluded — just as the slave-owning, elite Southerners who clamored for Civil War had — that lesser people inhabit the world.    

My friend Terry might be right that today’s Southerners feel ambivalent about the Civil War, but shouldn't some of us feel downright embarrassed? I now know the answer.   

Coming:  A Friday Evening In Georgetown. See PREVIEWS page.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Blood-Stained Rocking Chair in Dearborn

More than a decade ago when I visited Ford’s Theater, where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days after Lee surrendered to Grant, I left with one disappointment. I could view only a replica of the rocking chair in which Lincoln sat when America’s sixteenth president was assassinated.  The real chair resides in a museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Last week, I finally saw it.  

The chair in which President
Abraham Lincoln sat when
John Wilkes Booth shot him.
The carved wood chair with faded, red textured upholstery, clearly stained by blood from Lincoln’s head wound, sits innocuously in a showcase situated among thousands of artifacts from American history in the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village, just southwest of Detroit. (For more information, go to Greenfield Village.)

I visited “America’s Greatest History Attraction,” comprising an 80-acre village of outdoor exhibits; a cavernous, nine-acre museum of trains, planes, buses and cars; and an I-Max Theater with my youngest daughter. We had just attended her grad school graduation in Ann Arbor.  While nearly everything in the museum's walk through U.S. history fascinated us, it was the authentic Lincoln chair, eerily housed near the limo in which President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, as well as the long, black car President Reagan was entering when John Hinckley shot him in 1981, that held our attention the longest.

For me, this was probably because I’ve been studying and blogging about the American Civil War during its 150th  anniversary, and the assassination of the man who led the nation through its most tragic saga often occupies my thoughts. I also had seen myriad Lincoln sites from coast to coast as I have researched my history/travel books through the years. (See Feb. 22 blog Abraham Lincoln: Man In The Middle.)  

Presidential Box at
Ford's Theater in
Washington, D.C.
Now my vision of the fateful night when Booth, a handsome, 26-year-old Shakespearean actor, shot Lincoln behind the left ear is complete. I can envision the President in the rocking chair, enjoying a production of Our American Cousin with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and two guests.  I see the balcony box that theater staffers had decorated in the little three-story, brick theater tucked away on 10th Street NW in Washington, D.C., with red-white-and blue bunting and a framed picture of George Washington.

During the popular play, Booth sneaked into the theater and waited behind a door to the presidential box, framed with gold curtains.  As the audience laughed at an actor’s lines, Booth sprang toward Lincoln’s rocking chair and shot the president. The assassin then jumped from the box to the stage, catching his foot on the decorative bunting. He landed off-balance on the stage, breaking a small bone in his left leg. Still, he managed a clean escape by hobbling through a back stage door to a waiting horse and riding off. (See Currier and Ives representation of the assassination on PHOTOS page.)

Authorities surrounded Booth twelve days later as he hid in a barn in Virginia. Historians still debate whether Booth killed himself or one of his pursuers did so.  

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the next day in a back bedroom at the Petersen House, a nearby boarding house where doctors had administered to him throughout the night.  In the basement museum at Ford's Theater, you can see the blood-stained pillow on which the dying Lincoln rested his head at the Petersen House, as well as his blood-stained top coat. 

To view the bullet that killed Lincoln and fragments of his skull, go to the  National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of Walter Reed Medical Center at 6900 Georgia Avenue in Washington.  Also in the museum: a section of Booth's spinal column revealing the path of the bullet that killed him. For information, go to  NMHM.
Mark your calendar:  Greenfield Village will host a Discovering the Civil War exhibit from May 21 through September 5, 2011. You can tour the building where Lincoln practiced law in Springfield, Ill., moved piece by piece to Dearborn, as were other large artifacts in the village.

Opening in February 2012, the new Center for Education and
 Leadership at Ford’s Theater will explore the lasting effect Abraham Lincoln’s
presidency has had on our country. For more information, go to Ford's Theater National Historic Site.