A new adventure and tracing Civil War soldiers

Well, I have exciting news to share with you all. I began my new job on June 5 with the North Dakota State Archives, with my title being Reference Specialist. I am overjoyed at the chance to work again in archives, as it allows me to use my skills in a more intimate way to help people in their research. Much of what I will do consists of handling questions from researchers about our collections and trying to answer them by providing the patrons with the appropriate documents, photographs, or other materials. So far a number of these requests have come from genealogists, which I suspect will be the majority.

I want to use one example that links to the Civil War to illustrate how you can trace Civil War soldiers. A gentleman called the other day seeking information on a man buried in Slope County, North Dakota that locals say was in the Civil War in order to try and get a veterans marker for the individual. The only information I had to go on was the name as well as the birth and death years.

I worked with the gentleman over the phone and checked a couple databases on Ancestry.com, as well as a couple items from our holdings. Unfortunately, I was unable to track down records that would be needed to verify service and eligibility for a veterans marker, in this case either the service record, or pension file.

When beginning to trace a Civil War soldier, there are several things to keep in mind. One, record keeping at that time was nothing like today. Births, if recorded, were usually done in a family Bible, with the only usual methods at that time of knowing a person was born from a governmental standpoint being the federal census and applicable state censuses. Having the birth and death dates, as well as the state the person resided in at the time of the war will be helpful in navigating database searches to find your particular soldier.

Once you have this information, there are two important databases within Ancestry.com (the databases are also on FamilySearch.org, but may be under a slightly different name) that you will begin searching. The first is “U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865.” This database compiles basic information on the soldier (Name, rank, unit, state of residence, muster in date, etc.), but does have limitations, as names can be misspelled and it is not complete. That said, it is a useful starting point to eventually ordering a service record from the National Archives.

The other database is “U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934” is much more important in genealogical terms. It contains scans of the original index file cards for federal pensions issued to veterans, their spouses, or minor children. They are important because you will need the number to assist the staff at the National Archives in getting your particular pension file to prove service, but that file also has affidavits from friends and relatives, which can offer unique glimpses into that soldier’s post-war life. Getting the original service-related documents will be crucial to proving service and eligibility for things like a veterans marker if a Civil War soldier does not have one.

Other records you can also search to prove service are the various reports of the adjutant generals for the several states, many of which are now on Google books and in the public domain. These books contain the historical information of the units raised in a given state, as well as the muster rolls for the units. In addition, published regimental histories often contain said rolls too. Finally, archival facilities around the country house manuscript collections that contain diaries, letters, and memoirs on the war that are at varying levels of accessibility to researchers.

In the case of the phone call, the information on the deceased was limited, which made searching difficult. Further, the birth year recorded for him in our cemetery book for Slope County indicated that the person in question would have been at best sixteen in 1865. While young people certainly served in the war in significant numbers, lacking information about a possible unit stymied the search.

This brings me to an important point on researching Civil War soldiers as part of doing local history. In the case of my reference call, the caller indicated that locals claimed the deceased was a Civil War veteran. In practicing local history, one can sometimes find that what a community believes and what is fact are two different things. Now in this case, I am not saying that the individual did not possibly serve in the war, but that based on the information I had available to me, the likelihood was not as high. In recent years, there have been numerous cases of what is known as “stolen valor” where persons claim to be decorated veterans, when in reality, they either didn’t serve, or had military careers that did not involve direct combat or the earning of decorations for valor. It it possible that this person claimed to be a Civil War veteran? Maybe, but, just as with the initial question of did he serve, there is no direct, hard evidence to say for certain.

To summarize, researching Civil War soldiers can be a fun and rewarding experience, as you not only dive into an individual soldier’s record, but can then seek out the history of their regiment, which lists significant battles and events the unit participated in. Further, you can also read mention of significant deeds that some soldiers did. Examining the war from the experiences of the ordinary soldier has been popular for a number of years thus far (heck, my master’s thesis dealt with that subject) as we can relate better to the average person than the lofty people of a society.

I want to leave you with a couple helpful links to get you started on the journey of tracing a Civil War soldier.

Until next time, happy researching.

Ten Years of Blogging and Reflections on Teaching the Civil War

With all the craziness that has surrounded my life the last few weeks, as I finished my teaching job at Northland and prepare to move to the Bismarck area for my new job as an archivist with the North Dakota State Archives, I neglected to post yesterday for what was the tenth anniversary of starting this blog. I was busy packing some books to bring them down today when I checked into my new apartment out there.

After ten years of off and on posting on the Civil War about a variety of topics and with a diverse cast of fellow contributors, I am excited to see about posting more going forward and trying to get into a habit of writing to one of my blogs each day, which will hopefully inspire me to kick it into gear on my dissertation. Over the time I have tried to devote to this site, I have come to enjoy the periodic journeys into the various matters I have covered, including some controversial ones.

One thing I have done these past few months is teach a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction to students at the two campuses of Northland Community and Technical College. This was an exciting opportunity for me to finally teach a subject I enjoy greatly. Along the way, I learned some important lessons myself and have had some time to reflect on the course as a whole and how I might do things differently going forward if I am fortunate enough to teach such a class again.

One of the first decisions I made was choosing the readings for the course. There are literally hundreds of books to choose from on the Civil War that are useful for a course. I wanted to use a book that would be relatively cheap and cover some of the more recent areas of scholarship, particularly social history. I decided to use Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff’s A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War (2008), as I liked its thematic approach. In addition, I wanted them to read a memoir or diary written by a soldier who fought in the war, so I chose my old favorite and reliable Story of a Common Soldier by Leander Stillwell. Of course, I must confess my bias on using this one, as Stillwell is from my home county, Jersey County, Illinois.

In retrospect, I stand by my choice of Stillwell, as his is one of the best written accounts by a Union soldier in the Western Theater. However, I am not as sure on my choice of my other text, as students seemed, based on comments when I asked them about it, to struggle with the concepts brought forward in the book. Were I to teach the course again at a similar institution, I would consider probably using Charles Roland’s An American Iliad instead.

Now, in terms of subjects for lecture, I wanted to cover a wide variety, while keeping the focus to the major campaigns of the respective theaters and the major battles. I stuck to this, while having lectures also dealing with the historical context of the war, covering the history of slavery in America and the path towards disunion. I also devoted classes to the lives of soldiers and the experiences of women and children, death and medicine, as well as international relations. I was able to cover these subjects to varying degrees, mostly because of the constraints of the nature of the course schedule.

This leads me to one observation of my course that I wish dearly I could have changed, the time and duration of the class. My class was held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:00-11:50 AM. Further, though this was my doing, the class was to be held via Interactive Television (ITV), allowing it to be simultaneously held at both campuses, with me being at one (usually the East Grand Forks campus, since it was closer to my home).

I was scheduled to teach this same class in the fall semester last year, but it was cancelled because of low enrollment, which really disappointed me, as it was to be on the East Grand Forks campus, which would have allowed me to do my stock lecture on creating armies with my reenacting gear outside, as it would have been in September. This development altered that and I anxiously awaited the news of the course being allowed in spring.

Fortunately, the class made it for spring, but it’s scheduling and situation, as noted above, were awkward. I strongly believe that all history courses covering specific events, or shorter-duration periods of time are best suited for two days a week with classes being an hour and fifteen minutes in length. This is to allow a fuller examination of particular topics and time for questions. This is lost in a fifty minute class period and both the courses I took on the Civil War were two days a week. In addition, there is the inherent, though unintentional neglect of the students from the one campus the instructor is not in person with in the classroom.

Despite that issue, I made the best of it and also devoted time to showing some videos. I always enjoy showing an episode or two of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, as it’s a classic and still stands the test of time. I also wanted to show a feature film about the war. While Gettysburg (1993) is a fine choice, it is too long for such a class and I would not want to show Gods and Generals (2003), as while it could foster some fascinating discussions about the memory of the war and interpretations on it, I feared I would spend too much time trying to correct some of the issues related to the portrayal of the Confederate leadership.

I ended up deciding to use another favorite: Glory (1989). First, I have always enjoyed the film from the first time I saw it at 11-12 years old, as it is a great movie with a solid cast, despite some of the historical errors. Second, I felt that choosing a film that covered the often-overlooked contributions of African Americans to the war was an essential subject for the students to be exposed to and learn from. Finally, I hoped that it would spurn a lively discussion when we concluded watching it. Unfortunately, like many college students today, I had to pry answers out of them, and most seemed either uninterested in discussing, or more likely uneasy with speaking up about the questions I posed. I know going forward, I will still show such a film in a class on the war, but will also come up with a list of discussion questions for the students to write on and then discuss.

I’d like to think that all the students learned something from the course, though, as with any class, some exam grades demonstrated that some struggled to grasp the materials, or I am too tough of a grader. One area that really got to me was the efforts on a key assignment for the course, a research paper on any topic related to the war.

It is important to note the students had access to their own college library, albeit with a rather limited selection of quality history titles on the shelves, but also the broader consortium of libraries across Minnesota. I stressed using ILL and required them to use at least one book as part of their research. A few did do this quite well, but many simply used whatever Internet sources they found. This really upsets me, as I feel it is part of a larger problem of high and even middle schools not effectively teaching students how to research.

Anytime I assign such work, I always stress utilizing the library staff of trained professionals to assist in researching, as well as using any writing assistance before coming to me. Since I had them submit rough drafts for me to look over for such things over a month prior to the final papers due date, several did not heed my advice and their papers suffered for it. I still feel that a quality research paper is important for such a class to allow a student’s individuality to shine while learning to find evidence and argue a point. Clearly, we are not serving our students well by not stressing quality writing and citing of sources prior to them coming to college.

Overall, my experience in teaching the Civil War, even with some ups and downs along the way, was a positive teaching experience for me, as I learned that while I still want a book that covers the newer areas of scholarly inquiry into the war, I also need to remember that my students are not like me and perhaps a less formidable style and coverage are warranted. I do hope I get the chance to teach it again some day.

All in all, what a ten years it has been blogging about the war with you all. I have learned much about myself and hope that the next ten years will be more productive, as I hope to begin showcasing some fun finds related to the war in the archives beginning in the summer.

Robert E. Lee: Honorable Man, or Treasonous Scoundrel

I routinely enjoy listening to the personalities on the local talk radio station, KNOX AM 1310, as they cover a variety of topics and have moments of amusement on occasion. Ryan Cunningham, who hosts the Ryan Cunningham Show from 12-3pm on the station noted in late March of his upcoming trip in early April to Tampa, Florida, to cover the Frozen Four for the station. He mentioned that part of his route down to Florida was going to take him near Shiloh National Battlefield.

Ryan noted his interest in that battle and the larger war, which necessitated me calling into the show and sharing my experiences visiting the site two times. I friended him on Facebook and found out he had a good time, but, like visiting most Civil War battlefields, one day can’t do it justice. I do hope he will get the chance to visit again soon, as it is a bit of a drive from eastern North Dakota.

Anyway, he shared with me an interesting thing that happened on Monday’s show, which I missed hearing, where a caller argued that Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man because he fought for the Confederacy. I wish I could have heard the exchange, as Ryan hinted in his message to me that it was an amusing thing. Reading this got me to thinking about that question, as it is a potentially divisive one.

Certainly, one cannot deny that Lee’s pre-war military career and his personality reflected an honorable man. He was one of the most respected officers in the army at the time and such was his reputation that Lincoln offered him command of all Union armies. Had Lee stayed with the Union, like fellow Virginian George Thomas did, one can only wonder how the war would have turned out.

Lee was conflicted in April 1861, go with the Union that he had served for his entire adult life, or resign and side with his home state, which was clearly heading towards secession. History knows which way he chose and he eventually became a beloved general in the Confederate army, as well as begrudgingly respected by his Union counterparts, several of whom had known him before the war and had served under him, or alongside him. Lee achieved some great feats as a Confederate general, but does this service strip him of his honor?

While he did commit treason by levying war against the United States, as noted in Article III of the Constitution, consider his April 20, 1861 letter to Winfield Scott, where he resigned from the Army:

General:

Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army.   I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions.   To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me.   Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

-Courtesy of Civil War Trust

I read in this letter a man conflicted by his competing devotions to his duty as an American soldier and his loyalty to his home state. Keep in mind that many Americans’ identities, both north and south, related to their home state first and the nation second. While the states’ rights movement has clouded some of this in our post-Civil War history, the oath of enlistment for the United States Army is important to consider at that time, where the United States was referred to in the plural. As noted on the Army’s Center of Military History website, the oath used at the beginning of the Civil War read as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.

Yes, Lee served a cause that was committed to the maintenance of chattel slavery as part of its existence as a nation, but he conducted such service with honor. Consider his actions at Appomattox Courthouse, where he agreed to surrender to Grant, under quite generous terms. He very easily could have disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia into the hills and led a protracted guerilla war, which Davis seemed to desire. He chose not to do this and acquiesced to Grant’s generous terms. In fact, the respect and honor that Grant and other Union commanders seemed to hold for Lee is evidenced by Grant reminiscing on their pre-war army days.

Yes, Lee took up arms against the United States, which is treasonous, but I must argue that he retained much of his honor as a man, considering how he could have conducted himself and the war. Lee was an old soldier, who was suited to aid in the reconciliation of the nation.

Love him or loathe him, Robert E. Lee remains an important figure in our history and, with that, I will ask you to consider the following question and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Skype-ing the Civil War with students, part II

What a great day today! The St. Louis Blues beat the Blackhawks to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs and I was hired as a year-long sabbatical replacement at Northland Community and Technical College, which has campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, so I am staying in North Dakota for another year. An added plus is that part of my forthcoming teaching load includes a class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Needless to say, it has been an awesome day that started out with another amazing Skype session.

Just as with my first Skype session with Gary Kaplan’s group of History Club students in California, I again used this technology to do a brief impromptu talk on the Civil War. Today, I was privileged to be invited to speak to an eighth grade class from Andover Central Middle School in Andover, Kansas. Since it was a morning talk, I was able to broadcast from my home, allowing me to show off my musket to the students and discuss several topics, including how the war relates to today, medicine, training, and some of my experiences as a reenactor.

What was fun was being able to share my screen with them to show via Google Maps where I was in Grand Forks, in relation to their location, as well as some of my pictures from reenacting. I was also able to relate some of my personal interests into history with them, which has its roots in my dad taking me to Fort Scott, Kansas for a living history event when I was six or seven years old (we were stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas at the time). I also wore my sack coat for them too.

The students asked some awesome questions, including one who asked about how I researched my own Civil War ancestors. I also took the opportunity to have them do a bit of drill (mostly basic facing movements) and also described the medical examination, or lack thereof for joining the army. I also told them about women serving in the army, as well as children that served.

In a follow-up email, Dyane Smokorowski, who reached out to me to arrange the meeting, shared that the students were excited and talking about the experience. It is my hope that there will be an opportunity for the students to provide some guest posts here, as well as use this blog as a vehicle to ask questions about the war.

I want to thank Mrs. Smokorowski, as well as Heather Hawkins, who assisted with the technological aspects on their end, for allowing me to share my knowledge on the war.

Fort Sumter fired upon 155 years ago

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that inaugurated the Civil War. It is interesting to note that I received the April issue of The Journal of Military History yesterday, which features a wonderful essay on the recent historiography on the war and the direction of the field in light of the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial.

I also must note the irony of the action at Fort Sumter, as P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander, fired upon his former artillery instructor from West Point, Major Robert Anderson, which is referenced in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. With that, I will leave you with the clip from that landmark documentary that details the firing upon the fort.

New book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Megan Williams, Director of External Affairs
mwilliams@pritzkermilitary.org, 312.374.9333

The original journals of a Civil War veteran, Chicagoland native are the focus of
a new book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

CHICAGO, June 18, 2015—The Pritzker Military Museum & Library will host a free public reception next Wednesday, June 24, to officially launch its newest original work and to unveil an accompanying exhibit on the life and times of Civil War veteran and Valparaiso, Ind. native Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath. The event will begin at 4:30 p.m. on the Museum & Library’s main floor, and will be immediately followed by a formal discussion and recording for television by the book’s editor and others involved in its production, beginning at 6 p.m.

The Museum & Library’s third major publication, Dignity of Duty: The Journals of Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, 1861-1898 will be released in hardcover and e-book formats and comprises three original documents assembled and edited by Gilbreath’s great-granddaughter, Susan Gilbreath Lane—who discovered the papers in an archive in the late 1970s. The exhibit includes authentic photographs and artifacts from Gilbreath’s scrapbooks, hand-drawn maps commissioned for the book, additional materials on 19th Century America pulled from the PMML’s collection, and a dynamic online gallery and audio experience.

“Major Gilbreath was a mid-ranking field officer and family man who witnessed much of America’s 19th Century history—and he did it with a rifle and pen in hand,” said Museum & Library President & CEO Kenneth Clarke. “Journals like these are very rare.”
Severely wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War—a wound that would haunt him for the rest of his life—Gilbreath not only went on to a successful 37-year military career, but also bore witness to the coming of age of America as we know it. In his later journals, he shares many remarkable experiences, including a hazardous 175-mile journey by stagecoach in the Texas frontier during the Indian Wars; a shipwreck off the Gulf coast; travels in a wagon train pulled by mules with pet names; the second Great Chicago Fire; and the establishment of Fort Custer in the Montana Territory, where his daughter was born in a tent with his cook acting as a midwife.

To provide context for the book and exhibit, Lane will be joined by historian Frederick J. Chiaventone for the 6 p.m. recording of Pritzker Military Presents—one of two long-running series produced by the Museum & library for Chicago public television. Advance registration and a separate ticket are required to attend this program.

To learn more about the incredible life of this 19th Century American soldier, the new book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, or the June 24 premiere event, visit dignityofduty.org or pritzkermilitary.org.

About the Pritzker Military Museum & Library
The Pritzker Military Museum & Library is open to the public and features an extensive collection of books, artifacts, and rotating exhibits covering many eras and branches of the military. Since opening in 2003, it has become a center where citizens and Citizen Soldiers come together to learn about military history and the role of the Armed Forces in today’s society. The Museum & Library is a non-partisan, non-government information center supported by its members and sponsors.

About Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath
Born in Ohio in 1840, Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath spent his formative years in Valparaiso, Ind., where his parents settled in his youth. Following the death of his father, Gilbreath studied law and worked to support his family until he was called upon in 1861 to assist in the raising of the 20th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. Over the course of a 37-year military career, Gilbreath reached the rank of major twice—once as a volunteer and once with the regular Army—chronicling his experiences while serving in nearly every major battle of the Civil War; on various official assignments throughout the Indian Wars with his wife and children by his side; and finally in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, where he lost his life to an illness in 1898.

Bonds of War-a new blog on the economy of the Civil War

As many of my readers will know, military history, and the Civil War specifically are not just about soldiers and the movements of armies on battlefields, though these are usually the most popular subjects for consumption and study by many people. That said, the Civil War also had a profound economic impact, which is important and worth studying to understand the full influence this conflict had on the nation as a whole.

One enterprising doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, David K. Thomson, who has an impressive curriculum vitae, is chronicling his dissertation research into the role of Union bond sales on the war through his site Bonds of War. Though a new site that is just getting started, as Thomson begins to examine his topic, it will be exciting to see what conclusions he reaches on this unique and seemingly little-known topic of Civil War history. The blog portion of his site will share the stories of those who purchased Union bonds, which looks to be an interesting glimpse into a cross-section of 19th century society.

As someone at the same stage as him, I wish Mr. Thomson luck on his project and success in the historical profession going forward. As you have time during your day, go and check out Bonds of War and support this scholarly project.