Lest We Forget


While enjoying the Academy Awards last week, it occurred to me that three of the Best Picture nominees involved movies of historical non-fiction. Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty provide stories of both military and non-military histories that have made profound impacts on our country. And though we all know the outcomes of each story, revisiting history often can be just what we need.

As family historians and genealogist we recognize the importance of looking backwards. It is when history is ignored that the nastiest wounds of our past fester, only to reopen with a renewed fierceness. Evil is difficult to comprehend and over time, in our desire to make reason out of the unreasonable, we spin the past into a lesser, more acceptable story.

And unfortunately, the spinning often swirls in the recounting of the Civil War.

It is shocking to grasp that we live in a country that less than two centuries ago freely allowed the ownership of other humans. An era in which American citizens had the right to auction, mortgage, trade, beat, chain and kill other humans simple for their benefit and satisfaction. And an entire grouping of American states and their citizens felt so strongly in maintaining this right, they were willing to die for it.

There was nothing romantic about the ownership of slaves. No, slaves did not love their "masters" and yes, they were undeniably beaten and mistreated. And as hard as it is for all of us to believe, the Civil War was only about one single proclamation: Slavery.

I found the subject matter in the movie Lincoln as fresh and current as any other. It reminds us that we are only an inch away from the worst part of our history and if forgotten, our decisions of our present and future will be skewed to the less desirable.

Because if we forget, the worst of our past will most certainly rise again.

To gain a deeper understanding of the human impact of slavery, read the reprint of letters of slavery survivors on North American Slave Narratives.

Keep searching for answers,

Wesley crept up the wooden steps, his frail crooked body moving tepidly along each rung. The chatter of children lilted through the walls and he paused to listen; hoping to recognize a voice. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered a ragged picture and pulled it out, focusing his eyes on the three impish faces staring back.They were his children, half-orphans of the Civil War. Motherless from the brutality of a cruel war, Wesley placed his children in the arms of the St. Louis Catholic school praying they would be in a safe-haven; a respite far from the depraved outside world.

Wesley knocked against the door, his heart seemingly louder than his fist. A woman opened the door and gazed toward the disheveled Union soldier. A conversation pursued and Wesley raised the picture upward for the woman to see. The tall, plump woman lowered her glasses, her brow wrinkled as her eyes peered at the three young faces.

"We don't have your children, sir. They're not here any longer."

Wesley's heart slowed and he questioned whether he heard clearly what the woman said. His children are gone? The war was only a blip; a minor deviation compared to this.


Children's orphanages in America bloomed from the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th century. Children orphaned from the ravages of cholera and smallpox were gathered and sent to state-run homes for children operated by churches. Children of immigrants whose parents died within the poverty-stricken and overpopulated eastern cities were sent westward, filling the state and church-run orphanages.

And then there were the young victims of the Civil War. Children were gathered and placed into boarding schools and church schools for their protection. But as I have learned with my ancestor's story, many of the children were not orphans. Instead, their parents placed them in what they considered safe-havens, only to learn their children were taken aboard the Orphan Train as indentured servants.

If you stumble across this kind of story within your family history  you will have a formidable task in your research but it can be done. Orphanages operated by state and local governments maintained better records and a good place start your research is within the state's archives. Go well prepared with a name, age, birthplace of the child, names of parents and to whom the child was indentured, if known.

If a religious group operated the orphanage, the records may be archived at their state or national headquarters. Also, local and state historical societies may be a good resource for your search. And if you ancestor was an indentured servant selected during one of the Orphan Train's whistle stops, his/her records could be (believe it or not) found within the county courthouse deed books.

If your research lands you within the realm of lost children, don't stall out. The task may be great but the story begs to be told. War, disease and poverty played a significant role in shaping our ancestor's lives and some of them lost their families as a result. Get your hands dirty and dig deeper for the truth.

We owe it to them to finish the story they never knew.

Keep searching for answers,

(Genealogy In St. Louis)
Last week, as I was reading another blog, I immediately felt frozen by the question proposed: "Who is your favorite ancestor?" The question, for me, was provocative. I had never considered just one ancestor as my favorite but I felt challenged by the query posed.

Considering the amount of time and research I have spent on my family history, one would think the answer would pop-up easily within my head. But with each ancestor's story unfolding as I delve into their history, I have grown quite fond of  many of my ancestors.

But as I scan over my family tree and consider the story of each, my soul pulls me toward one particular ancestor, a great-great grandfather. The story I have uncovered of my little Frenchman from Arkansas, reads like a long, heart-wrenching novel.

My ancestor found himself living within a web of Confederate sympathizers in Texas when the Civil War broke out. Where many would have joined the side closest to them, my ancestor risked his life to escape to the Arkansas Union line. As a result, he lost his first wife and children to the destruction of a bloody, brutal war. And though my great-great grandfather lived meagerly until his death, I find his strength and convictions heroic.

I suppose another question and one that for me is most difficult would be: "Who is your least favorite ancestor?"

If you have studied your family history enough then you have occasionally been blindsided by ancestors you found distasteful. But should we give them less study? Are their lives and stories not as important to our history as the heroes and heroines?

I revealed in a previous blog my delight at discovering scoundrels. Should we shudder with embarrassment of their deviations or proudly peel away the layers, revealing their dirty warts and all.

There is no wrong or right answer to any of these questions. They, instead, give you an opportunity to reflect on each ancestor closer. And as you study, perhaps you will be  challenged to learn more of your ancestors in order to answer more thoroughly the questions. 

But consider this: As you answer the questions, the challenge reveals not only stories of your ancestors but also your story. Because those that we most admire will have qualities we strive for. And those least appealing will be those with characteristics we struggle against.

Take the challenge and ponder your answers. It is an exercise that will bring you closer to your ancestors and surprisingly, to your own self.

Keep searching for answers,

"Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break...The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I enjoyed them for so long...How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness..."

"But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights...always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again..."*

Who was the achingly lovesick author of this beautiful letter? Possibly Hemmingway, Fitzgerald or even Poe?

Your guesses, though flattering, were miles off. The above excerpts of the heart-wrenching love letter were penned on July 14, 1862 at Camp Clark, Washington D.C. by Sullivan Ballou; A Civil War soldier from Rhode Island. One week after the Union soldier poured his love and affection into the letter to his wife Sarah: Sullivan Ballou was killed in the Battle of Bull Run.

And the letter was never sent; found tucked within his belongings at the time his remains were retrieved.

As more and more Civil War documents are brought to light; thousands of records, held deep within the vaults of state archives, reveal the love letters from soldiers. Many of these men wrote from their hearts as they camped on blood-soaked battlefields. At a time in our history when the soldier's only communication to his wife and family was by pen and paper, the letters of Civil War soldiers allowed a private platform to describe the horrors of the war and to speak from the deepest of their souls.

The letters of Civil War soldiers, many of which are love letters to their wives or sweethearts, are beautifully preserved and readable on many of the state archives and university libraries. The Library of Virginia Tech's Special Collections offers a wonderful display of soldier's love letters from the battlefield.

History Happens Here, a magazine of the Missouri History Museum, began posting reprints of the James E. Love Papers: a Union soldier in St. Louis. James wrote letters to his fiance, Eliza Mary Wilson from 1861 until the end of the war. The magazine wittingly posts the letters in sequence, 150 years to the day after each letter was originally written, allowing subscribers to read them as if each were a chapter in a book, unfolding in front of them.

At a time when the art of writing love letters has grown old fashioned and antiquated, reading the beautifully written letters from young men ravaged by war, feels fresh and romantic. A fitting repose for those of us who love genealogy and long to imagine...just for a moment...the aching love and loneliness of our ancestors of the Civil War.

Read Sullivan Ballou's complete love letter to Sarah and dream your hearts away: 150 years after the prose was penned.

The love letters of the Civil War soldier; just in time for Valentines Day.

Keep searching for answers,

*(Source: PBS.org)
The soldiers of the 1st Arkansas Calvary had evolved from a reckless, ragtag grouping of men, to become a well-regarded unit of the Union Army. Stationed at Fayetteville, Arkansas, they positioned their strong force and secured the city within their tightly held grasp. But as a corps of Calvary soldiers, a strikingly important piece of military equipment was missing: horses.

The horses of the Union Cavalries of the Civil War were the heartbreaking victims of gun battle, disease and starvation, leaving many of the soldiers without their most precious military partners. The US government fell far short of keeping the Calvary stocked with sturdy horses; many soldiers taking their personal horses into battle, only to loose them to death.

During the summer of 1863, Wesley Lewis and others from the 1st Arkansas Calvary, were detached from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Rolla, Missouri with a mission to replenish their unit with fresh horses. Proceeding by foot, the band of Calvary soldiers marched their way through the Arkansas territory toward Missouri; most certainly depleted of sleep and food.

The men, many a mere skeleton of their former selves, held their faith but the 250-mile journey would be a hell-bound trial of survival. Their brutal enemy was not Confederate rebels but the cruel elements of  nature. For twelve days, Wesley Lewis and his crew of steadfast brothers endured pounding, torrential rains.

Without shelter or dry clothes, the horseless Calvary soldiers marched day and night. The rain was relentless; bearing down so hard that many became disoriented to the direction of their journey. Step-by-step the men forged into Missouri, weighted with wet clothes cemented onto their bone-thin bodies by thickened mud. And my ancestor, Wesley Lewis, felt a cold shiver pierce his core. Leaving his ravaged body weakened and disabled until his death.

Military records have become a vital element of genealogical research. Recognizing the richness of their information; military indexes, draft records and pension files are spilling forth on websites. But studying your ancestor's words within the files can open your eyes to not only their records, but also their experiences.

War is miserable and glory is fleeting. And it is easy for those of us conducting genealogical research to spare little time in pausing to grasp the reality of war for our ancestors.

As we pass by this Veterans Day, become better acquainted with your ancestors who fought wars. Each war was harsh and many of our ancestors were pooly equiped and exposed to elements most of us could not survive. My ancestor, Wesley Lewis, remained frail from his mud-soaked march to Missouri until his death, 26 years later. His experience retold by fellow soldiers in letters within his pension file.

Revisit your ancestor's military records and study his war experience. And make every day, Veterans Day, in your genealogical journey.

Keep searching for answers,

My most recent discovery of my great great grandfather's Civil War experience has refueled my interest in not only his life but also his lineage. An ancestor already known to me from family notes rather than discovered through genealogical research, I had given little time to his history. With a quick discount of importance, I placed his name on my family tree and moved on, searching for others I considered more noteworthy. Perhaps finding an ancestor who was an officer in the Revolutionary War, heralded in history books for his strategic military mind. Or if I look further back, I might discover an heir to a monarchy, providing validation to my lifelong assumption of royal lineage!

But after years of searching, my attention to an early interest of undiscovered fame has evolved into an acceptance of 'just average' ancestors. And yet as I delve further into their daily 'average' lives, I find these individuals to have remarkable strength and endurable grit. And I am taken back by a man who took great risk in pledging his allegiance to the Union army, and the country he loved.

I honestly had never given much time to learning about the Civil War. Of course as all, I sat through my college U.S. History class; reading assignments in order to pass one more required credit. But reading my ancestor's words of his experience of the war has provided a deeper understanding of what these soldiers and their families went through. And I am left to compare their lives with ours.

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at the top of national news and the subject of newly released movies, I feel my Civil War ancestor, Wesley Lewis, deserves a second chapter to this small weekly blog. With a quick review of his story from last week's post, Wesley escaped from a Confederate state in order to join the Union army. Returning home to tend to his sick wife, rebels invaded their home and forced Wesley to witness his wife's death.
But the second chapter to this heart-wrenching saga leads us to Wesley's children. Without documents found giving explanation of their care and whereabouts after their mother's death, their disposition was left to my imagination: Until my recent discovery of Wesley Lewis' probate records from the courthouse of Washington County, Arkansas.

Leaving little time to grieve, Wesley had to quickly find refuge for his young children. Unable to parent them due to his duty in the war, he took them 700 miles from home, placing them in a Catholic boarding school for their education and protection. But when Wesley returned to the school after the war to retrieve his children, he was told they were no longer there. Most likely placed for adoption, he spent years searching for his children but they were never found. And this unheralded 'average' Civil War soldier lost his entire family as a result of the war.

Wesley Lewis eventually took a second wife, my great great grandmother, and built a new family after the war, but his tragic loss of his first family cannot be denied. And I am humbled by his life. This 'average' man did not hold great military honors nor was he descended from royalty but the story of his life reveals a man of great honor and I am proud to call him my ancestor.

As a tribute to my great great grandfather, I have developed a new page to this website, providing links to search for Civil War ancestors and view other sites dedicated to the Civil War. It is my hope that these efforts will do justice to my 'above average' ancestor.

Keep searching for answers,