What Do We Really Know About Our Ancestors?

I have admitted more than once that I don’t have any direct ties to the Civil War generation and no doubt it shapes, to a certain extent, the way I approach this particular period in American history.  In contrast I am struck by the level of intimacy that so many claim when talking or writing about an ancestor that fought in the Civil War.  Of course, living and teaching here in Virginia and blogging mainly about the history and memory of the American South influences the kinds of stories that I come across.  At times I don the hat of a historian and ask follow-up questions about evidence, but more often than not I listen to the story as an expression of how the individual in question chooses to engage and remember the past.  Often times I find that the stories reflect a set of cultural values or work to comfort the individual storyteller and family members.

Recently, I viewed two episodes of the NBC Show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” which follows celebrities as they research their pasts.  It’s essentially a rip-off of Henry Louis Gates’s successful PBS series.  The two episodes followed Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee and both related directly to the Civil War and slavery.  I will leave it to you to watch if interested, but what struck me in both shows was that when push comes to shove we know very little about our ancestors.  Most of us do not have family records on hand such as letters or other legal documents.  Websites like Ancestry.com have clearly grown in popularity, but I suspect that the number of users is relatively small.

But if that doesn’t make the point I’ll go even further and suggest that most of us don’t even really know our own family members that are currently living.  How many of us really know the histories of our parents and grandparents?  I am talking about something that gets us beyond the basic narrative outline.  Barring a family member’s early death we could get at some of these questions if we were truly interested.  A couple of years ago my grandmother gave me a collection of letters written between her and my grandfather from the 1940s that you can see in the above photograph.  My grandfather’s auxiliary hats are included along with some wonderful vintage birthday and Mother’s Day cards.  It’s an incredible collection, but I do feel just a little uncomfortable about prying into my grandmother’s personal life.  Many of these letters were written while the two of them were separated by the war and a few of them date to their courtship.  I’ve talked with my grandmother on occasion about the Great Depression and other events, but I still admit to knowing relatively little about her life.

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

The other thing that stood out in the two programs was the difficulty that both men experienced when confronted with a past that they had not anticipated or even understood as possible.  How many of our own claims about our ancestors would go up in flames when confronted with some solid historical evidence?  Would we be surprised?  Is it possible that we might have no idea of how to assess or make sense of their lives?  Perhaps the lesson here is that if we are going to “bear witness” to the lives of our ancestors we should first be willing to take a few steps in their direction.

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53 comments… add one
  • Matt Gross May 31, 2010 @ 17:44

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for opening up another in a long series of engaging topics related to how we choose to remember the Civil War and the people who took part in it. How much do we really know about our ancestors? Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask. First, let me say that I am the descendant of a Union cavalryman who served with a Massachusetts regiment. If you ask my cousins what they know, they would tell you that our ancestor fought at Gettysburg—“all three days.” Being a Civil War buff, I liked the sound of that. Our ancestor…..at one of the most critical battles in our nations history. Cool! Only…..he wasn’t there. Having taken on the mantle of family historian, I choose to research his state and federal service records; his unit history; his pension records; his G.A.R. Post Personal War Sketch; letters and accounts from commanding officers; the OR. You name it—I researched it. What I discovered was a far more interesting account of his service—–and of the Civil War, than I had known before. I discovered that he fought at the Battle of Ollustee and other skirmishes in the Sunshine State that I had never even heard of. Ken Burns never spoke of my ancestor and his buddies surprising a rebel camp in the swamplands of northern Florida and capturing three cannon. The research informed me of that. No Civil War history book ever informed me of his narrowly escaping from his would be captors in a footnote battle of the Appomattox Campaign. It was dogged research that told me that story. This same research should be at the heart of not only good family and local history, but of the important moments in our nations history. Through the process of investigating the campaigns he took part in and their place in the larger context of the war I made another startling discovery—-published, modern, historians don’t always know their topic. As I mentioned before, my ancestor was involved in a little remembered battle during the Appomattox Campaign. In the process of researching the battle to get a better understanding of what my ancestor’s unit faced, I discovered that this published author had made a claim about the battle which was in stark contrast to the account of the battle as written by the officer and others that took part in it. The officer’s report was right there….in the OR….and yet hadn’t been used. What we really know is based on….what we really know. Lacking a time machine or the ability to raise the dead, we know as much as a careful analysis of exhaustive research tells us; that and nothing more. During the course of my own research, I read James McPherson’s, “What They Fought For”, and Noel Ignatiev’s, “How the Irish Became White.” These books gave me insight into what some Union soldiers and Irish immigrants thought of one of the foremost issues of their time: slavery and the status of African-Americans in mid-nineteenth century America. What these works don’t tell me is what my ancestor thought of this issue….and they never will. Lacking a diary or some other personal account, I can’t, nor will I ever know what he thought. I would like to think he didn’t use the vulgar terminology that others may have used…but may’be he did. I will never know, and can’t presume to know. By the way, it turns out my ancestor was at Gettysburg…for the whole thing…in 1913, that is. In the process of the research, I discovered documents that indicate that he was present for the 50th reunion of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg. It turns out one did not need to have been a veteran of the battle to attend; any veteran of the Blue or the Gray was welcome. Don’t tell my cousins, though….I wouldn’t wan’t to let the facts spoil the fantasy.

    • Matt Gross May 31, 2010 @ 17:49

      Woops, put an apostrophe in the word want. Didn’t catch it until it was posted.

  • Matthew Donnelly May 19, 2010 @ 7:40

    My closest Civil War ancestor was my great x3 uncle – my great-great-grandfather’s twin brother. We don’t have anything from him besides the muster records and one piece of apocrypha, but Research can fill in a few things. He was in the 141st PA and was captured in the fighting for Fairview (Chancellorsville) on 5/3/1863. We don’t have a solid release date, but he apparenty was not at Gettysburg – a particularly bad day for his regiment. Family history had him going to Libby Prison, but that wasn’t likely for a private. Prisoners were held at Guinea Station to be marched down the RF&P to prison camps (most likely, Belle Isle). This puts him across the railroad tracks from the Chandler Plantation as Stonewall Jackson was dying. No, we can’t say that we know our ancestors, but we can at least see where they were.

  • Craig May 16, 2010 @ 20:19

    Nearly everything I know about my Civil War ancestor I learned in the past five or ten years and that’s a large part of why it’s been nearly impossible for me to generate any interest about him from my dad or any of my siblings. They’ve gotten along just fine for decades without any real use for feeling connected to the Civil War.

    What happened with me is that I found an online emigration record in Germany and an online cemetery transcription in Wisconsin. I wondered if there might be a connection between those records. My great great grandfather’s fatal experience of the Civil War is what allowed me to fill in the gaps between a tiny little village in what’s now called Poland and another tiny little village in upstate Wisconsin. When I filed my request with NARA for my great great grandfather’s service and pension records it included the names of the men whose signature’s appear on his widow’s claim to that pension. NARA contacted a lawyer in New York, the great great grandson of my great great grandfather’s commanding officer, and he sent me an e-mail the week that record request was processed.

    A detailed and carefully documented non-fiction account of my ancestor’s experience in the war would be drier and dustier than my blog. A novel, fictionalizing all of the things I don’t know about him, and those who were part of his world, could be far more entertaining and enlightening.

  • Craig Swain May 14, 2010 @ 6:19

    “You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter. ”

    Well to be blunt, I don’t really care what my ancestors thought of slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, etc., etc; other than perhaps for use at dinner conversations. My ancestors were, on both sides of the Civil War, fairly common folks. And their opinions of political issues or military leaders is not authoritative. If I really want to learn about those issues, I shouldn’t attempt such through a line of ancestor worship in the first place. Which I believe is the same point you are getting to – trying to understand the context of the times those ancestors lived in, before making assumptions.

    • Kevin Levin May 14, 2010 @ 9:08


      That is, indeed, my point.

    • Robert Moore May 14, 2010 @ 9:52


      I’d argue that the effort to try and understand the context of the times those ancestors lived in can be part of satisfying a curiosity about those ancestors, no matter how small the curiosity. Likewise, I think that there are a fair number of local historians who take the time to do this, but may have been initially launched on that path by some form of ancestor infatuation (I don’t think I would call it “worship”)… uh-hum … myself included. Hopefully, in their efforts to find answers, the history drives the study of heritage as opposed to the heritage driving the study of history. The point is that this investigative history is sometimes spurned by curiosity of ancestors and the results aren’t always bad.

  • Paul Taylor May 13, 2010 @ 16:52

    Kevin –

    Great post, as usual. It has seemed to me over the years that many folks, perhaps, live a bit vicariously through the “remembered” Civil War exploits of their ancestors. This whole discussion reminded me of one of the classic scenes from “Fraser,” especially for those readers who discovered that their ACW ancestors may not have been as “gallant” as first thought. 🙂

    So, just to add a bit of levity, here ’tis:


    “…and we’re not Romanovs, we’re descended from thieves and whores.”

  • Lane Kiffin May 13, 2010 @ 9:10

    We have letters and other stuff going back to the 1850’s encluding Birth, Marriage licence , Death records, Bibles and tax records.

  • Matt McKeon May 12, 2010 @ 13:18

    When my dad retired he did an exhaustive search for information about his ancestors, and uncovered a surprising amount for basically a group of poor people. As it turns out, they were a bunch of scumbags. Kind of a bummer, but it does put the bar pretty low for me.

    • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 13:20


      Yes, but I am sure they were honorable scumbags.

  • Tanya Ogle May 12, 2010 @ 10:34

    I have read your blog for a while now, with great interest, and have held my tongue over many of the comments and opinions you have expressed in the posts. I figured I had no dog in the hunt and it was best to sit back and be an observer.
    This morning I read this entry where you ask the question, “What do we really know about our ancestors?” Within, you espouse the work of Henry Louis Gates in the PBS series “Faces of America”. Indeed, the Gates program was well made and informative but in your seeming zest to make your point, your first tendency is to claim the recently airing series, “Who Do You Think You Are” as “essentially a rip-off” of Gates’ work. This assumption on your part is totally incorrect as another reader quickly pointed out. The fact is, the series “Who Do You Think You Are?” is an American edition of a long running British series by the same name. The Gates PBS show came out just within 2010. My observation is that this is indicative of many of the directions you take in your “Civil War Memory” blog, blogging driven by emotion and a largely philosophical bent (and may I add, extremely partisan), reinforced by all the books you tout.
    You’re heading in that direction with the proposed article written jointly with a descendant of Silas Chandler. I advise you proceed with caution if assuming her interpretation is valid. Today’s posting is exactly to that point. The story has come down and been filtered and diluted, i.e. biased by the personal take of others where the primary source is now strictly anecdotal. I recommend that you examine the census records and you will find that Silas Chandler was within a few years the same age as his white friend and not decidedly older as has been claimed. You will be amazed at what the census does reveal. You need to examine the 1860 Slave Census of his owner first. You will be able to determine his accurate age there, although he, as with all of them, are unnamed. Make note on later census recordings that Silas’s age fluctuates every ten years as might have best suited his needs at the time, and has thus confused his descendant. You will also find it curious that sometimes he is listed as a mulatto and other times as black.
    Beware of assumptions made from a fraction of the facts.

    • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 10:39

      Thank you very much for the comment. Yes, one of my readers was kind enough to point out my mistake and yes I have made mistakes on other occasions as well. I would suggest that you read my published work which you can find on my CV page and judge for yourself as to the quality of my scholarship: http://cwmemory.com/cv/

      Finally, I don’t think you are in a position to say much of anything about Silas Chandler’s age. I’ve already posted on just that issue based on conversations with my Silas connection. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      • Tanya Ogle May 12, 2010 @ 11:51

        So you have found that Silas was born in 1842 and not 1839? He was the only 8 year old male that Roy Chandler owned in 1850 and one of four 18 year olds in 1860, owned by his widow Louisa.
        Silas was first recorded by his own name in the 1870 census at age 28, just a couple years older than Andrew, and not a great difference to preclude that they were not childhood playmates. After that first, by name census, Silas’s age begins to go up and down, for whatever reason it may have been.
        Forgive me then if you have already covered this finding in a previous posting. I must have missed it.

        • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 12:56

          Here is the post in question with some information about Silas Chandler: http://cwmemory.com/2010/03/28/looking-for-silas-chandler/

          There is no evidence that they were childhood playmates and yet every website makes just that point. Their respective ages doesn’t preclude it, but we should at least question it. Let me be clear that I do not have the census information in front of me. I relied on the Chandler descendant who contacted me. That information, along with other documentation is being copied and will be passed on at some point soon for the purposes of the article. Please remember that this is a blog. It is an ongoing and fluid space where I can share my thoughts concerning any number of topics related to the Civil War, including my own research projects.

          One final thing. If you are going to comment on Chandler please post it at the link above. Chandler has nothing to do with the subject of this post. Thank you.

          • Tanya Ogle May 13, 2010 @ 19:49

            My purpose in writing about Silas Chandler was as an example of how important it is to follow the entire paper trail, and not just the first documents you find. Census records are valuable tools, but every census available needs to be compared to others before and after it. Alternate spellings need to be considered also, if the individual seems to fall off the face of the earth for a while. By the way, the 1880 census reveals that Silas’s mother was living with him at that time and her name is given as Polly Garvin. So here, as an example, is a refuting of the statement that his parents are unknown.
            Good luck with your work.

            • Kevin Levin May 14, 2010 @ 0:39


              I couldn’t agree more. We need to be very careful when it comes to any primary source.

  • Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith May 12, 2010 @ 9:24

    I might suggest a good place to start is to read some of the over 1000 blogs of the Geneabloggers community. The Top 100 were just announced today by MyHeritage.com http://blog.myheritage.com/myheritage-coms-top-100-genealogy-sites-2010/ – a good starting place. Ancestry.com is accessed by hundreds of thousand of users… not a small number. Thank you for raising the question, and I hope the answers are also obvious. We do each need to understand our ancestor stories. It is my commitment for the rest of my life. Let’s work together to spread the word! BTW, Civil War Pension files are wonderful ways to do that, for example!

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Bill 😉

    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”

    • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 10:41


      Thanks for the comment and for the link.

    • Andy Hall May 12, 2010 @ 11:09

      I read recently that Ancestry.com has something like 1.5 or 1.8M subscribers at any one time. The annual turnover rate is very high, though, something like 50%, because customers subscribe, do their genealogy work and then drop off.

      I subscribed recently, and the tools are very handy and easy to use. They won’t entirely replace traditional, primary-source footwork down at the courthouse, but I can certainly see that an historian who routinely needs to look up census records and similar public-source documents would find it a very useful adjunct on a regular basis.

      • Robert Moore May 12, 2010 @ 12:52

        “They won’t entirely replace traditional, primary-source footwork down at the courthouse”

        That’s debatable. Take a look at Footnote.com. As of now, anyone who wants to get that service record for a Confederate, no longer needs to go to the National Archives, or order from there. I suspect that ancestry.com and Footnote will increase the number of records available online by leaps and bounds, and a subscription to Footnote is wayyy cheaper than ancestry.

        • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 13:16


          Do you subscribe to Footnote? If so, do you recommend it?

          • Andy Hall May 12, 2010 @ 13:44

            But if you use them as part of your job, they’re both tax-deductible as a business expense. 😉

          • Robert Moore May 12, 2010 @ 15:03

            Yes, I subscribe. I think I got this year for under $40. Not too bad. It depends on what you are looking for. I think they have all of the Confederate service records online, and are slowly adding Union records. Pension index cards are also available for Union soldiers, as well as widow pensions. They also have a wide variety of items from other periods of time, beyond the Civil War.

          • Vicki Betts May 13, 2010 @ 5:36

            I *highly* recommend Footnote.com. Just looking down the list of records under Civil War I see Board of Commissioners–Emancipation of Slaves in DC, Brady Civil War Photos (free), 1860 Census, Civil War and later Veterans Pension Index, Civil War “Widows’ Pension”, Civil War Subversion Investigations, Confederate Amnesty Papers, Confederate Citizens File, Confederate Soldier Service Records, Union Soldier Service Records (in process–Texas not done, USCT done), Court Slave Records for DC, Custer’s Court Martial (free), Domestic Letters of the Department of State (free), Lincoln Assassination Papers (free), Navy Survivors’ Certificates, Navy Widows’ Certificates, News–London Times (free), Passport Applications 1795-1905, Secretary of the Interior–Suppression of Slave Trade and, and Southern Claims Commission Records.

            I’ve worked occasionally in the Confederate Military Records for Texas, and extensively in the Confederate Citizens File. The latter is indexed primarily by name of voucher recipient or author of correspondence, and by state, although mixed files make this hit or miss to some degree. I’ve racked up over 131,000 additional annotations, or index entries, for towns, counties, quartermasters’ names, and topics such as medical purveyors, wool, drawers (picks up vouchers from seamstresses), nitre, passports, and blockade runners–almost anything except corn, fodder, hay, horses, beef, and mules, which are just too common. I’ve also highlighted 133 documents, dealing primarily with the war in Texas and secondarily with the Trans-Miss as a whole, but I’ve run across other interesting items as well that I’ve annotated or spotlighted to make them easier to find. Recently spotlighted documents include an account of depredations by CS soldiers in Arkansas in 1863, spy reports out of Kentucky in 1861-2 which include a mention of the display of war trophies belonging to Benjamin F. Terry of Terry’s Texas Rangers, Samuel Andrews’ letter inquiring about his son in the 46th VA Inf, a letter from an East Tennessee Unionist to his wife, a sketch and description of a proposed mid-war CS national flag, and a slave pass for Tredagar Iron Works. Past discoveries include a previously unknown account of the burning of Fort Davis in western Texas and on the spot reports of an undercover operation to root out a Unionist plot to free POWs in East Texas. As you can see, these documents, while interesting to the genealogist, constitute a new “haystack” for Civil War needle hunters.

            I think even non-members can take a look at my findings at http://www.footnote.com/profile/vbetts/ although there may be a cut off on how many documents you can pull up and enlarge for free. Members will certainly be able to pull up full documents.

            Back to “Who Do You Think You Are”–I really enjoyed the series and it has been the only television program that I’ve scheduled my week around this spring. However, I was also concerned about the leaps of judgment based on relatively little information. I guess the most recent example was the assumption that Spike Lee’s ancestor’s last owner must have been the father of her children, despite the fact that with such a large slaveholding there was probably an overseer, probably sons or other male relatives, and perhaps other possibilities. Not saying that he definitely wasn’t the father, but that without the DNA test it certainly wasn’t a given. I can understand the need to find a definite face, however.

            Vicki Betts

            • Kevin Levin May 13, 2010 @ 7:37


              Thanks for taking the time to highlight how you’ve used Footnote. I am close to jumping on board given the reasonable subscription cost. I also agree with you re: your evaluation of the Lee episode.

              • Robert Moore May 13, 2010 @ 8:09


                Going back to what I said, “it depends on what you want to do” in reference to Footnote. I said this because there are some things on ancestry.com that aren’t on Footnote, and vice versa. If your draw to Footnote is Civil War related items, I think Footnote beats ancestry.com, hands-down (though I am puzzled about the difference that I have found in the Union pension index cards, between Footnote and ancestry).

                • Kevin Levin May 13, 2010 @ 8:13

                  Thanks again, Robert. I am definitely thinking about Civil War related documents, but it would be nice to be able to pick out documents from other time periods for use in class or just to satisfy my curiosity.

  • Larry Cebula May 12, 2010 @ 9:06

    Twenty years ago the secretary at the history department I was attending told me that there was a story in her family that her grandfather had been in the Civil War. How could she find out more? I found some addresses for her to write to (in those pre-internet days) including an office in the Defense Department (I think) and though nothing more of it.

    Fast forward a few months–she gets a packet of information. Her grandfather had been at Gettysburg! He had attended some of the famous battlefield reunions. And on the 50th anniversary of the battle, while touring the battlefield, he dropped dead of a heart attack. There were newspaper stroies about it from the time that some agency sent to her.

    How does a story like that, just two generations back, become lost to a family? And yet I know almost nothing about my own grandparents, who died before I was born. Historical amnesia is a national past time.

  • Ken Noe May 12, 2010 @ 7:45

    I have five Civil War ancestors, all Virginia Confederate cavalrymen. I’ve been intrigued by the fact that two joined up in 1861 while already in their forties. But no, I can’t say I really know anything about them other than what the census and muster rolls tell me. My grandfather barely remembered his great-grandfather, who was the last surviving vet. But given my own great-great grandfather, who did time in the West Virginia penitentiary for killing a man with a fireplace poker, I’m guessing they were a tough bunch.

  • Boyd Harris May 12, 2010 @ 7:01

    In some cases, our knowledge of our ancestors is complicated even more by the family that followed them, yet preceded us. Case in point: I have four ancestors that served in the Confederate Army, three in the 12th NC and one in the 55th. My father did the genealogy research during the 1990s in order to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We were able to uncover three letters written by “Grandpa” Joe, the one who served in the 55th. These were not original letters, but transcriptions done in the early 1950s by an aunt who was a grandchild of “Grandpa” Joe. In one of the letters there is clearly a sentence or two left out by my great aunt. The section containing these missing sentences concerned the lack of workers for the upcoming harvest. “Grandpa” Joe suggested that his wife contact another farmer and hire out some workers. The sentence following this suggestion literally picks back up with “…and let him know I will pay him what I can in January.” The missing section was a family mystery for years, but was usually overlooked as just a part of the letter that was unreadable. My father, and I, did some digging and discovered in the 1860 census that this farmer owned five slaves.

    Now, who was getting hired for the farm work? It could possibly be laborers or maybe even a member of the farmer’s family, but it could also be that my ancestor was suggesting that his wife hire out a slave from this man. So here I have a great piece of primary source material, and even better it is of personal importance to my family and me, but I am now saddled with having to interpret the motives of my ancestor and his grand-daughter. Did my aunt feel that this particular passage was too embarrassing? Did she feel that this comment was an aberration within the family lore surrounding “Grandpa” Joe, who supposedly fought in defense of North Carolina and family? On one hand, I am a little pissed at her for deciding to be the moral judge of this man and his actions. On the other hand I find it a very personal connection to the creation of this family myth, our small part in the creation of the larger myth of the Lost Cause. My father and I are still digging. We hope to uncover more letters and are excited to know more about our family…good or bad.

  • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 5:07

    I have no CW ancestors so far as I know. One branch of the family didn’t come over until after the CW and the other, while here since 1750, was mostly Brethren and Mennonite (we’re still trying to figure out the one who qualified my dad for membership in the SAR). However, thanks to my involvement with the Longstreet Memorial Fund, I became acquainted with many SCV members and came across other. Some are truly hard-core Lost Causers (for obvious reasons, there weren’t many of those involved in the LMF) However, with a lot it was more an attempt to resolve a painful cognitive dissonance. They accepted that slavery was a bad thing. However, they revered their CW ancestor and couldn’t bear the idea that the ancestor was fighting for such a bad thing. Therefore, they embraced anyone who told them that slavery had nothing to do with causing the war. But, of course, it wasn’t that simple. Any man of military age in a rebel state during the Civil War would have grown up in the pro-slavery mentality shaped by John Calhoun and his followers. Every authority figure in his life, parents, church, and school (if any), would have told him that slavery was a positive good, the best for both races, and abolitionists wanted only servile insurrection, white extermination on a massive scale, and miscegenation. Individuals or editors/journalists who challenged this had, for the most part, been driven out or even killed. The US government had approved of destruction by southern postmasters of abolitionist editors. I’m not surprised so many supported the Rebellion; I’m amazed that so many chose to support the Union despite all of this.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 5:10

      I know I’m replying to myself but I caught a typo. I meant to say that the US government approved of southern postmasters destroying abolitionist MAIL.

  • Emmanuel Dabney May 12, 2010 @ 4:31

    I agree generally with what Kevin posits. Many people who claim their Union or Confederate veteran ancestors are unfamiliar with the events which made a Confederacy separated from the Union, unfamiliar with the events that actually happened during the war, or those that followed. Precisely because as many comments here reveal it is hard to know someone’s inner most thoughts when they neglected to write them down and even then we must question “Did they tell us everything?”

    Nevertheless while we’re on the subject of genealogy I thought I would chime in with some comments on my own and claiming all elements of the coin.

    I credit my grandmother with both my love of history and genealogy matters. She gave me bullets handled dropped on my family’s property in April 1, 1865 in the aftermath of the Battle of Five Forks when I was probably 6 or so. She also told me stories about her family and that of my grandfather’s. The sticking point for me even as a young child was that she said “My grandma was white.” Then she would tell me these stories about growing up in Jim Crow Southside Virginia. The two didn’t seem to match for me. Nevertheless through census searching I discovered my doubts were wrong…indeed Sarah Hatcher had not just one but six mulatto children in the 1870s. Recently I discovered her father MIGHT have been a Confederate soldier who died at a prison camp. WHAT?! Well, the research continues to discover if that is true. Nevertheless, if it is, I will not be shunning this Confederate ancestry just because of my family’s “other” treatment by society at large. “Why not?” say some. Not because I love the Confederacy’s high moral ground (mopping up sarcasm) but because the historic facts of the matter is that race-mixing was (and is still) a part of life in America. There is indeed something ironic about Sarah Hatcher and William Clark’s (my black g-grandfather who was critical in making those mulatto kids) relationship when we understand the public statements of planters and politicians in the years before, during, and after the war.

    On my grandfather’s side of the family, the race mixing is even more prominent. Descending from James Holt Boisseau, a wealthy slaveholding plantation owner, his son James Boisseau represented my home county at Virginia’s secession convention where he voted twice in favor of leaving the Union. J. H. Boisseau had nine children with my great-grandmother (free mulatto) Rebecca Ampy (alias Dabney). The male children including my g-grandfather were conscripted during the war by a white cousin to go dig earthworks for the Confederacy. Now as Kevin knows, I work at Petersburg National Battlefield. I spent several years informing visitors about Charles Dimmock, only to later find out members of my male ancestry received orders from Dimmock. Furthermore, my g-grandma Rebecca’s farm is where my family (still) lives, her home (circa 1840s) still survives (unlike J. Holt Boisseau’s), the land given to her by Boisseau, and her property was ransacked by Union troops in the aftermath of Five Forks (probably when those bullets were dropped that my grandma gave me).

    So what does this all add up to? Well, my male and female ancestry later did describe their wartime woes and miseries at the hands of Confederate and Union troops. There are still questions but ultimately I do feel like at some level I am obligated to tell others about their wartime experiences not merely to toot my horn about having mixed racial background but in part because of what Loren Schweinger, Ph.D said in a class I had with him. The “unique problems in the study of Black History” are:

    1. Trouble defining race and “Negro”
    2. Small amount of primary resources from blacks about their experience
    3. Westerners have difficulty understanding cultural differences of Africa (or others).
    4. Cautionary reading of historians who have no understanding or sympathy in race problems.
    5. Continued strength of a separate black culture and blacks who were determined to integrate into American society.
    6. Africans in America or American blacks have had a different experience than every other ethnic group.

    Some of these issues I have less of a problem with in order to understand my family’s place in the larger scheme of things but ultimately in the long history I have no idea how Rebecca was freed, who she was conceived, why she sometimes used her maiden name and sometimes the name of another free mulatto man (Dabney), and perhaps most disappointing no clue about what the African bloodline was like in Africa or their voyage to North America in chains on a likely overstuffed slave ship.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 6:41

      People love to quote passages in the WPA interviews of former slaves to show that slavery wasn’t so bad. However, while a valuable source, it also has to be placed in perspective as well. Among the problems with those interviews is that these interviews took place about 70 years after slavery ended, so not only were all of the interviewees very elderly, but many of the interviewers were white. Many of the interviewees were living in the South were segregation was not just de facto but de jure & where incurring the notice or, worse, the wrath of whites could be fatal. The odds that they would be candid with a white interviewer, even a Northerner, were slim. It’s far more likely that they’d tell the interviewer whatever they believed the interviewer wanted to hear. I suspect that they’d even be cautious with a black interviewer if they felt that their comments and their identity might come to the attention of the local whites.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 6:43

        I seem to be replying to myself a lot lately. I wanted to add that the age of the interviewees and the time frame involved meant that most interviewees would have been children during slavery.

      • Marc Ferguson May 12, 2010 @ 8:39

        Some were interviewed twice, and in the cases where the interviewers were white in one instance and black in the other, they told very different stories. Invariably when interviewed by a white person, their accounts of slavery were more benign.

    • Teresa Farley Dec 20, 2010 @ 17:14

      Robert Boisseau is my gggg grandfather and I would love to hear more about them.

    • cynthia owens Jan 12, 2012 @ 10:59

      I am with you on this E. I too love history and my need to understand ours has no boundaries .Keep searching.

  • David Langbart May 12, 2010 @ 2:13

    Wayne Hsieh’s attitude is shocking for one in the historical profession. Just think of how thin our knowledge of the past would be if the only documentation we had to work with was what shows up in official records. So much of the growth of military history over the past couple of decades has come from incorporation of the soldiers’ perspective that would not be available without their personal documentation. I have two letters my Father wrote to his parents in May 1945 that give an overview of his experiences in Europe during the war. They are circumspect (and in two places censored by the official censors) but I treasure those documents. I’d much rather see the everyday paper trail from the average person than the musings of somebody who is impressed with themself and wants their diary or letters read by future generations.

    • Kevin Levin May 12, 2010 @ 3:00


      Thanks for the comment. Of course, I am going to let Wayne speak for himself, but these are very personal decisions. That said, I don’t see any necessary connection between work as a historian and a commitment to preserving one’s personal correspondence for posterity. In fact, I can easily see how work in this field may steer one to do exactly what Wayne has suggested he will do with his personal record.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 4:52

        For real insight into the struggle between the professional and the personal, I’d recommend viewing Jake Boritt’s documentary about his father, the noted CW historian Gabor Boritt. This is Jakc’s summary from IMDb, “Plot Summary for Budapest to Gettysburg (2007)
        Gabor Boritt is an expert on Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. Fifty years after fleeing a continent ravaged by the terror of Hitler and Stalin, Gabor reluctantly returns to his native Budapest. Urged by his son, he faces the harsh history of his Jewish-Hungarian childhood: the Nazi invasion, the Holocaust, Allied bombing raids, Soviet tyranny, the 1956 Revolution and his escape to America. From the streets of Budapest to the fields of Gettysburg, Gabor discovers the intimate and epic history that transformed him into a great scholar of Lincoln, the Civil War and American democracy. Written by Jake Boritt.”

        It’s very common knowledge that Gabor came over after the 1956 revolution failed, but it was only when I saw the documentary as part of one of the Gettysburg Foundation’s events for contributors (Jake presented it and Gabor was there) that I realized that Gabor Boritt was a Hungarian Jew who survived WW II. It was early on in the documentary and Gabor was talking about his family’s routine, pre-WW II, and he made a reference to the Sabbath and going to Temple or Synagogue (I forget the exact term but it clearly referred to a Jewish place of worship). Anyone who has studied the Holocaust even slightly knows the fate of the Jews of Hungary. the Nazis invaded it as the war neared its end, even though the Hungarian dictator was friendly to them, because, despite that, he would not cooperate in the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. The Nazis then imposed the Final Solution on Hungary with appalling effectiveness. Gabor Boritt was an impressionable child during this. I can’t imagine how painful it was to examine that time. You can see how difficult it was for Gabor to talk about it. I doubt anyone other than his own offspring could have persuaded him to do since it was Jake’s family history, too.

    • W. W. S. Hsieh May 14, 2010 @ 11:12


      Greetings from grading purgatory, hence the delayed response.

      I could attempt to give you a more rational explication of why I’d like my personal correspondence to vanish, but it’s really just one of those things–kinda like how I’m sure there are few academic historians as superstitious as I am. It’s also probably part of my vaguely contrarian streak. None of these are really “good” reasons, but hey, I’ve never made claims to sainthood.

      Like I said, though, in the end it’ll be up to my heirs to decide. I’ve always thought the dead should avoid putting any restraints on the discretion of the living.


  • Bob Huddleston May 11, 2010 @ 18:19

    I had a great grandfather who was an officer in the 25th Illinois Veteran Volunteers. And another was one of the Squirrel Hunters that defended Cincinnati from Bragg. Another emigrated in 1870 from County Cavan. The fourth? I don’t know. But I also am related to their four wives. So, at best, ¼ of my blood and genes came from Civil War veterans. ¼. And my children, adding in Judy’s two great grandfather veterans, 1/8 of their blood comes from Civil War ancestors. My grandchildren? With their mother’s blood, at most 1/8. But only 1/32 of their genes comes from Captain and brevet Major John Scott, Twenty-fifth Illinois. So, while I enjoy tracking down information about them – the only relics of Captain Scott are an 1870 picture in his lieutenant’s uniform in the regulars and his post-war belt buckle – including his service record from the Archives and the lone reference in the ORs. So the answer to your question is not much!

  • Robert Moore May 11, 2010 @ 18:07

    A little CW ancestor envy there, Kevin? 🙂

    You are correct, for the most part we don’t know much about them. It’s tidbits of information we piece together, with huge… no, I mean HUGE gaps in it all. The problem is that there are a good number of people who like to fill in those gaps with the “memory” obtained from reading about others who left documentation.

    Let’s say Joe Blow finds a Confederate ancestor and all he has is a set of Confederate military records in front of him, and maybe if he is lucky, a set of pension records as well. No family stories, no diaries, no letters, no pictures, not even a button from his uniform… just the photocopied records, and those records are scant in details. Nonetheless, Joe gets all caught up in this, and starts reading everything he can get his hands on. Different works intersect the timeline of the ancestor… General X was also from Virginia, like his ancestor; Private H was in the same battle, maybe even in the same corps… before you know it, Joe subconsciously begins to assimilate all of this as part of the memory of his ancestor. In fact, Lee’s story about why he resigned and joined Virginia sounds so great that he thinks his ancestor MUST have joined the Confederacy for the same reason. Before you know it, he can recite the words of others as if his ancestors said them AND he can’t imagine anything that might put some dark spot on the honor of that ancestor. The ancestor is finally defined in absolute terms… “my ancestor fought because….” Viola, instant heritage! There is no more room in some of these folks for any “maybes” or “could have beens”, “buts” or “on the other hands”… and anything contrary to this adopted memory, this line of belief of an ancestor, is “revisionist history”… heaven forbid you say anything that compromises that belief and some sense of honor. Oh, and then, of course, you have those that begin to adopt the “cause” of an ancestor… those who take offense as if in the first person.

    Of course, this is just a sample, but I KNOW/have known people like this.

    I’ll admit, however, there is a thrill to know I had an ancestor in a certain unit, or in a certain battle, and get a thrill every time I find another ancestor in the war. If you have these in your family tree, it does impact a visit to a battlefield. I don’t think there is a way around it, it’s just something a few notches cooler. The fun part is trying to unravel the mystery of what they thought or really felt in the way of sentiment. However, it can only be that, “trying,” because in most cases, the absolute answers will never be found. You know my story, so I won’t bore you with how many ancestors I had in gray and blue… the grays outnumbering the blues like the odds of most Civil War battles in reverse… but I have to say, laying aside the sensitivity to the honor stuff and taking off the blinders, it becomes even more enjoyable, because one can actually begin to embrace the bigger picture, not of the ancestors, but of that period in time. For one, I love that part because I can really enjoy the diverse history that really defines the CW South. There’s no doubt that these days, I probably get a bigger kick out of the items that I find that are contrary to the absolutist views. There’s no bad. It’s all good because it’s history, and it’s cool because it’s a history of the people from whom I’m descended.

  • Andy Hall May 11, 2010 @ 17:09

    Great post.

    In my own case, I’ve been doing a little research on my family, with particular focus on identifying Civil War veterans. It’s turned up some surprises. In one case, I found a soldier who enlisted in a Georgia infantry unit in April 1861, and served the entire war in the same regiment — apparently in the same company — all the way from First Manassas to Appomattox. It’s staggering to think about the things he must have seen, the places and events and people that we know only from books and film. I do think — or maybe only hope — that it’s possible to at least to get a sense of what they knew, a sense of what they went through.

    But even if that’s possible, it’s only a snapshot of a moment in time. In most cases we cannot know their minds, their fears, or their motivations, because there is no record of those intangible things. The men who marched off to war in 1861 were, like soldiers today, motivated by a whole range of reasons, often multiple reasons at once, and often by reasons that they cannot fully articulate to themselves.

    I’m fortunate that I have a large collection of detailed stories about part of my family — though not involving the branch this particular Confederate inhabits — but even these would not really serve the matter, for they’re inevitably filtered though succeeding generations of perceptions, misunderstandings and prejudices. As you say, these often tell us more about those who have carried on the oral tradition than about the original subject.

    I really do wish I could talk to that twenty-year-old soldier, a century and a half ago, and ask him why — why was he enlisting? What motivated him? What did he expect would happen? And I wish I could talk to him again, trudging back home from Appomattox — tired, hungry, hardened, and perhaps traumatized by his experiences.

    Those are questions I want to ask, and never can. That’s a hard thing, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.

  • W. W. S. Hsieh May 11, 2010 @ 17:06

    Partly because I’m a historian who makes it a habit of reading other people’s mail, part of me would rather posterity NOT be able to look through my papers and the like. If I ever sat down and really thought through how to dispose of my personal papers, I’d ask pen-and-paper letters (I have some) be returned to their original authors, but have all of my own personal materials burned. I have scruples about official and professional correspondence, but most everything else I’d rather go into the oblivion. Of course, the reality is that I’ll let the heirs to my estate do whatever they want with the stuff–my will has nothing about burning anything–but a big part of me, for not terribly rational reasons, would prefer to just fade away into the documentary ether. I think being a historian has made me suspicious of my own kind, and I’d almost rather vanish, than have someone use my correspondence in the service of some mangled argument.

    I don’t know if this is necessarily an unheard of attitude among historians; I’ve heard of one historian who wrote a diary during an extremely interesting period of time, but always kept it close to the vest.


  • Andrea May 11, 2010 @ 16:10

    I have one ancestor on each side of the Civil War, and the fact that I have no letters, no personal documents, nothing but muster records, census reports, and a pension application, drives me *nuts*. What I know is that they were poor, although the Confederate joined the cavalry. Before and after the war they lived in multi-generational households, according to the census. Before the war, neither one owned slaves, although this was par for the course for men of their social class. I also know two of their children (the Union veteran’s daughter and one of the Confederate veteran’s sons) got married and produced the family line that leads to me. If there’s anything at all I would love to be able to ask my ancestors, it’s how that wedding went over.

    But all of this is basically by way of saying that I’m exactly who you’re talking about here; I have a fair amount of demographic data on my Civil War ancestors, but aside from a couple family stories about the daughter of the Union vet, I know nothing personal about them. And it drives me up a wall.

  • David Woodbury May 11, 2010 @ 16:06

    I don’t know when Gates’s PBS show was developed, but “Who Do You Think You Are” is the American version of a show that’s been on the air in the UK since 2004. It was licensed from the BBC.

    • Kevin Levin May 11, 2010 @ 16:10


    • Margaret D. Blough May 12, 2010 @ 4:55

      David-You should know better than most how much some veterans didn’t tell their families since you uncovered the fact that Anne’s ancestor, Romulus Tolbert, not only survived a Southern POW camp, which, IIRR the family knew, but he also survived the sinking of the Sultana, which they didn’t know about.

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