While I have been a student of the American Civil War for a number of years, within the last few years I have become fascinated with the memory of the Civil War. It became a focus of my masters thesis, “Flaws in the Armor of the Grand Illusion: Dissent, Reluctance and Disaffection for the Confederate Cause in the Central Shenandoah Valley – A Study of Page County, Virginia,” and has driven my interests in the war ever since.
That being said, about a year ago I was in Page County, Virginia in search of the grave of one of the county residents who opted for service in the Union army instead of the Confederate army. Frederick Amos Alger was born in Page County, Va. on 25 January 1842, a son of Lemuel D. (1815-1887) & Mary Ann Getts Alger (1818-?). Easily age-eligible for service in the Confederate army from the onset of the war, somehow Frederick was able to remain out of the army for quite sometime (he may have found employment with one of the many government jobs available in the county at the time). However, following the passage of the third Confederate conscription act, and the enforcement that followed in the spring of 1864, it is apparent that Alger, under the pressure of Confederate conscript hunters, left Page in order to evade the Confederate draft. Not only did Alger leave the county, but it appears that Andrew Jackson Foltz, possibly a friend of Alger, decided to break-away as well. Foltz had only recently come under the eligibility of the new conscription act, having turned 17 years old on October 5, 1863. Making their way to eastern Virginia, Alger enlisted with Co. M, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry (then in the vicinity of Williamsburg, Va.) on 9 February 1864 and Foltz enlisted in Co. K of the same regiment ten days later. The regiment saw active service for the duration of the war, participating in raids on the Weldon, Danville and South Side railroads. The regiment was also engaged in the fighting at Jarratt’s Station, Flat Creek Bridge, City Point, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Stony Creek, Reams’ Station, New Market Heights, Five Forks, and Appomattox Court House.
Alger returned to Page County where he married Sarah Elizabeth Seekford on 15 March 1866. While he initially returned to farming, he later worked as a boatman on the Shenandoah River, and then, by the last two decades of his life, apparently occupied himself as a shoemaker. Alger applied for and received a pension in February 1884 (application #507160). He died less than two years later, on 7 June 1886. His wife, Sarah, applied for and received a widow’s pension in 1891. She died on 20 April 1911.
One might think that things would have been difficult returning to a community (incidentally, though his parents remained in Page, Foltz lived in Illinois after the war) where so many volunteered for Confederate service, but there is evidence to the contrary (yet another glitch in the neo-Confederate theories of die-hard postwar animosities). Alger had, in fact, named Jacob Daniel Koontz as one of the executors of his will; Koontz having been a veteran of Company D, 7th Virginia Cavalry and one of the four men involved in the tragic Summers-Koontz incident.
Nevertheless, returning to my story about visiting the grave…When I arrived at the site of the cemetery, I encountered the land-owner, who happened to be a direct descendant of Frederick A. Alger. When I asked about the cemetery, he said that it was out in the field and that Frederick was buried there. Figuring it might offer a good opportunity to probe for a little more information (perhaps he had his sword, some G.A.R. memorabilia or simply had a family story to share), I asked him if he realized that his ancestor served in the Union army. To this he replied, “Aw, don’t say that!” It was then all too clear to me that the memory of a Union ancestor had been totally vanquished over time (even among descendants who had lived on the same property since the Union ancestor had lived there). Once over the initial surprise, I started telling him about his ancestor’s service, and, the descendant remained attentive and seemed to grow more interested. I even offered to order a G.A.R. marker for his ancestor’s grave, and he was receptive of the idea.
My point in telling this story is simple, yet describes the complexities involved in understanding historical memory. My personal experience has almost consistently revealed that Southerners with Union ancestors have become disconnected from the truth about their ancestry. I don’t fault descendants, but attribute the loss of historical memory to… time. At first I thought that memory of Union ancestors faded over time as a result of it not being “fashionable” as a Southerner to have a Union soldier in the family tree. But, I think there might be more to it as a natural tendency. As gaps between generations increase, memory fades as a result of “natural causes.” Even among Southerners with Confederate ancestry, I find the same a regular happening. Many that I have known could hardly tell their ancestor’s name, let alone unit in which he served. There was, from my experience, more of a tendency to simply know that one had a Confederate ancestor. Little or nothing could be said about why the ancestor fought for the Confederacy or what the ancestor did. I have, however, encountered several descendants, easily swept into the neo-Confederate movement, who have “re-invented” memory. This re-invention, for the most part, has been centered on historical facts (such as what can be found in military records – although that too, to my own surprise, can prove misleading), but has evolved into something more than what anyone alive today can come close to claiming as truth… even to the point of one saying that they know that their ancestor fought for one thing or another. As the central feature to this section of my blog, memory of the war, especially as it applies to Southern Unionists, disaffected Confederates (including deserters) and reluctant Confederates (including the wider-than-realized pool of Confederate conscripts) will be the source for future postings. What makes it even more interesting is the opportunity to share personal experiences where contemporary memory is cited as an example of how many have remolded the war, and the very soldiers who fought in it, to fit their own modern agendas.