More puzzlements over Civil War “memory”

Posted on March 8, 2008 by


I’ve written about how I am puzzled over the way that those with no familial connections whatsoever have found “sympathetic connections” with one side or another in the Civil War. I’ve also written about how a person, descended from a Union soldier, had been left with a legacy of forgotten family participation in the war. However, today, I want to add yet another form of “memory” to the mix. What’s so personal to me about this story is the way in which it impacted my “memory” of the Civil War (even now as I am into my early 40s).

I know a man, in his late 40s, who challenged me to find a Union ancestor in his family tree. He said it wasn’t possible. This guy is a die-hard Confed, there is no doubt, and I loved the challenge with which he presented me. Interestingly, the guy had no clear line of direct descent from a Confederate veteran (other than to an officer in the militia, which presents a new set of problems within itself), yet he considered himself a tried and true member of the SCV. After what was a very short amount of time, not only had I found a Union ancestor in his family tree, but I found two – a father and son. Not only that, but this fellow has the same surname as those two ancestors (a great-great grandfather and a great-great-great grandfather). You can’t get a more direct line of ancestry than that! Now, it is one thing to find two lineal Union ancestors in this Virginian’s family tree, but the ancestors that I found were from New York. What a shock to this guy!

The news of his “realized heritage” clearly bothered him. Not only that, but he backed out of a bet to which he had agreed. If I found a Union ancestor, he would wear Union blue at the next reenactment in which he participated. He didn’t do it. I think, somewhere in there, I had also tossed in the something that amounted to his joining the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War if I found an ancestor in blue, but he didn’t do that either. Actually, when I found these ancestors – keep in mind that these were his ancestors, not mine – I think I was more excited than he was. I immediately started looking into the histories of the units in which they served and even found a book published about one of the regiments. Additionally, having posted his ancestral information on the Web, I was even so fortunate as to hear from another descendant who had photos of these ancestors in Union blue and also a few other photographs of one of the ancestors in a G.A.R. uniform. What an incredible find! However, his reaction bothered me. How could he, after being given this information, not show greater interest? When I asked him if he was at least a little proud, he would say he was, but then he would turn around and say he would have shot his ancestor had he faced him in combat. Now that was just too much for me.

I have mentioned this before in this blog, but I have eight lineal ancestors who served in the Confederate army (four who were probably not so interested in what the Confederacy had to offer). Several of them served in the Laurel Brigade, which is certainly a source of pride. In fact, one of my children has a name Henry K. Emerson, Co. D, 7th Virginia Cavalry. One of my great-great grandfathers who joined the Confederate army early and stuck it out to the end.that reflects this pride in this portion of my family tree. I also have numerous distant uncles who served in not only the Laurel Brigade, but also the Stonewall Brigade – one of those uncles, Capt. Michael Shuler, being a company commander in the 33rd Virginia Infantry (he was killed at the Wilderness). All-in-all, this made for a very “thick” Confederate heritage. However, while I heard a few stories about Confederate ancestors, it wasn’t something that was driven into me by family members. In fact, I would ask my parents and grandparents about stories of the war and in most cases, they didn’t know a great deal and couldn’t tell me much. Clearly, there weren’t too many stories to make it down the line. In fact, when I asked my grandmother about old family stories, she would often say that “you don’t want to know about that, it was a long time ago.” So, in truth, the Confederate slant that became a part of my Civil War “memory” was made because of what I made it (mostly through a heavy ingestion of knowlege from Civil War books).

However, just over a decade ago, I found a distant cousin (a half 1st cousin, four times removed) who served in the Union army (Cole’s Cavalry), was captured by John S. Mosby’s men at Loudoun Heights, Virginia on January 10, 1864, and ended up dying of scurvy at Andersonville. What was so great about this was that he was a Moore – James Draper Moore- his father (Hamilton Alexander Moore) being a half-brother to my great-great-great grandfather (Cyrus Saunders Moore). To me, that was great news! I had another familial connection with an era in Headstone of Pvt. James D. Moore, grave #7273 at Andersonvillehistory that fascinated me! Not only that, but I had an opportunity to look into perpective from the “other side of the fence.” Even after over 30 years of “thinking Confederately,” it didn’t really bother me to find a Union relative. In fact, on my last tour of duty in the Navy, within months of transfering to Georgia, I made the trek across the state (one long haul from the SE coast, I assure you) to see this cousin’s grave at Andersonville. When I finally saw the grave, I was horrified, not only was the unit information incorrect, but the name was wrong as well. It took me about a year to have it corrected, but when I finally got the call from the Park Service, I felt a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I had done justice to the memory of my cousin by correcting a wrong that had been in place (and in stone) for many, many years.

In time and within the last five years, I finally found a fourth great-granduncle – Joseph Lake McKinney – who served in the Union army (again, in Cole’s Cavalry – in the same company (Co. B)  as the above-mentioned cousin). Through McKinney, I had finally found a qualifying ancestor for membership in the Sons of Union Veterans (though I didn’t actually take action on it for about two years). 

So, when I found this Union ancestral information for this other guy, I was left dissapointed because of his reaction. I finally realized that some people just take the “Confederate thing” way too far. Ultimately, this was one of a couple of factors that altered my own reflections on the Civil War. The other thing (developing my thesis about Southern Unionists, disaffected Confederates and reluctant Confederates in my home county) just happened to take place at almost exactly the same time.

I’m sure I will have more to say on this later, but this is long enough for now.