Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Civil War story

I’m piecing together a little more of my dad’s childhood by going through the family tree work done both by my cousin, Kathleen, and my daughter, Shelly.

I find those family trees deadly boring.  Real tooth gritters to sort through.  Sadly, I am barely interested in the branches; I love the people and their stories.  I found my Grandfather Rolf’s World War I and World War II draft registration cards out on Ancestry.com.  I threw them into something called my Shoebox, to go over later.  I have several neat finds in that Shoebox, out there in the clouds.

Going through Kathleen’s work I realized I have a place to fit one of my Dad’s stories.  I can take it out of my mental shoebox and give it a good look.

Dad was born in Coalmont, Pennsylvania in August of 1907; the grandfather for whom he was named had died in April of that year.  Dad lived in Coalmont with his mother and father, brother and two sisters until his mother moved them back to Akron about 1914.  I surmise they lived with his widowed grandmother, or very close by.  I have Aunt Laura’s recollection of living at the grandmother’s house.  Other male relatives in or about the house were Dad’s two uncles, Horace and Blanchard (Uncle Pete).

The Civil War story is one of the few stories where my dad referenced himself, so that I knew it was about his family. I only heard it one time. It was about two uncles in the Civil War.  The story had some daring and a little swashbuckling, and I absorbed the details, but in thinking it over years later just couldn’t square the dates, any uncles he had being the same generation as his father and too late for the Civil War.

Flipping those tree pages of Kathleen’s back and forth, I think I pieced together a real story.  Dad’s grandfather, who he never knew as he died in the spring before Dad was born in the summer, was a Civil War veteran.  A private in Co. D, 5th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry and a sergeant, Co. H, 125th Regiment, wounded at Antietam and discharged in 1863.  John William, the grandfather also had three brothers, all of whom were younger, and all of whom could have served during the war. One died in May, 1864, during the war and aged 25.  I need to look into this to see how he died..

Dad may have heard the story from these great uncles themselves; or it may have been passed along by his uncles who heard the story from their uncles.  As Dad heard the story before he was seven, sorting all those uncles wasn’t a priority.  It was a wide-eyed story.  Here it is – at last.

Dad had two uncles in the Civil War.  They were from Pennsylvania, they fought for the Union, and they were spies!  Not the sort of spies who skulk about under cover looking for secrets.  They went about their business in broad daylight, in full view of the enemy.  They were photographers who posed as itinerant photographers.  They packed their equipment on mules and went among Rebel camps in Virginia, making pictures for soldiers to give to their sweet hearts and mothers.   Information gathering was easy, chatting up the men they were photographing,  and to get important documentation they would pose their subjects in front of ammunition dumps or gun batteries. 

I imagine a small boy would be all ears for a story like that, no matter which uncle told it.  I have no idea how the information went back to “headquarters”, but we know that could be done. 

We can hope these fellows went home to their mothers, their wives and their sweethearts.


  1. One of the dark hours of American history....but it sure makes for great family stories.

  2. All of my ancestors immigrated after the civil was so I have no long history. My mother's parents homesteaded by the South Dakota border (and my dad's family just a short ways from there). It makes for a tidy family tree. Last summer, a cousin and I visited the old home place and found everything gone except for a pile of rocks from the foundation of the barn. I took one home with the idea of doing something with it.

  3. When I was young I was fascinated with the Great Plains homesteading--My Antonia, for instance. What a hard life, what hard work.

  4. Wow. My father (a German Jew) fought in the Second World War but I never found out how or when he left Germany or who he left behind. A man who made oysters look talkative. Thank you for this post. I loved it.

  5. I can just imagine how all that must have sounded to a little boy! There are so many family stories which get lost; thank goodness you are recording yours - I love reading them.

  6. I have a lot of interest in that terrible war. Sherman marched through our town but thankfully did not burn it. I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at the end of last year. We must never forget history. I believe for those of us in the South it is still very fresh in our memories. We have no records of our old house as Sherman burned our court house. Thanks so much for visiting me, Olive

  7. FANTASTIC! I love stories like this. And loved hearing about your research in getting it. Oh, this is perfect!!!