When Memory and History Collide

I got a kick out of this short editorial by Kevin Cullen in Danville, Illinois, who recently went looking for information about an ancestor that served in the Confederate army.

For years, I imagined Private Cullen riding a magnificent stallion, attacking the Yanks with his saber, carbine and Colt. In my mind’s eye, he wore gauntlets, a gray felt hat with a jaunty plume, and black boots that reached to the knee. He was, in every sense of the word, a fearless Southern cavalier.

But this week, well, reality struck. I had contacted The Confederate War Department, an online service that researches military records. I had hoped to get all sorts of thrilling information; instead, I discovered that my ancestor first went AWOL, then he deserted in June 1863 — and was never heard from again.

Regardless, he probably could have told some amazing tales. The Fourth Regiment, Kentucky Mounted Infantry, organized at Bowling Green, Ky., in September 1861, had 213 men disabled at the Battle of Shiloh, and then it fought at Baton Rouge and Jackson. As part of the Army of Tennessee, it fought at Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign. It lost 21 percent of the 275 men engaged at Chickamauga…

All things considered, I’m glad Private Cullen deserted. If he had been killed at Chickamauga, I wouldn’t be here today.

For those of you who harbor such fanciful thoughts about an ancestor that you know nothing about I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Howard Bahr’s The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War.  You have to admire Cullen’s honesty.  Not everyone could have chatted with Robert E. Lee or charged fearlessly over the earthworks.  And it’s reassuring to know that the Confederate War Department is still active.

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8 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Mar 4, 2013 @ 11:16

    I have a professor that always warns students that want to do research relevant to family history. He always tells them to be careful of the sacred ground the trample on, you don’t want to “piss off grandma.”

    Great post Kevin.

    • Woodrowfan Mar 5, 2013 @ 6:23

      After my one grandfather passed away some years back the family was going through his papers. We found my grandparents’ wedding license. It was dated some months after the anniversary they had always claimed. Apparently my Aunt was born a bit less than 6 months after they were really married. Oops. My Aunt was very upset. I found it amusing, but I was the only one. To me it made them seem more human, a young couple in love who got a bit ahead of themselves. Oh well.

      • Jimmy Dick Mar 5, 2013 @ 10:48

        I have found that same situation happened a lot here in Northeast Missouri and other places as well. There were a lot of early births (7 and 8 months) for the oldest child in a lot of marriages for some reason. Everyone knows the score, but pretends like it never happened like it obviously did. It is entirely human and not some big scandal, but it does indicate how society places pressure on people to conform to an expected norm even when that norm is obviously being violated consistently.

        • Woodrowfan Mar 6, 2013 @ 6:53

          “an eager young bride could accomplish in seven months or less what takes nine for cow or countess.” Robert Heinlein

  • Will Hickox Mar 4, 2013 @ 9:35

    “Breaking News: The people of the past did not live their lives to provide us with vicarious entertainment. Story at 11.”

  • Woodrowfan Mar 4, 2013 @ 8:38

    If your grandfather was a pirate it’s something you hide. If your great, great grandfather was a pirate then he was a rogue and someone you brag about.

  • Keith Muchowski Mar 3, 2013 @ 10:42

    Love it. One thing I learned from volunteering in a small history museum in Texas that offered genealogy records (in the years before much of this stuff was online) is that your family history is more complicated than you could imagine.

    I can take the family memory angle one step further than Cullen:

    According to my family lore we had an ancestor who fought for the Union, eventually rising to brigadier general. My own mother not being much interested in her family background, we never knew or thought much about it when we were growing up. It was the 70s; things were tough and we were just kids anyhow. Our extended family, still living in the Northeast, were quite proud of this however, to the extent that even today young girls in the family are still being named after him. (I don’t want to say who it is, but his last name can also be a girl’s first or middle name.) Anyways, about a year ago I joined Ancestry and started researching my family on both sides. As you can imagine, I was quite eager to have a Civil War veteran–a Union general who served well and honorably, no less–in my family tree. There was indeed someone with that last name in our family, but no matter how many different ways I looked at it I knew it wasn’t true. Believe me, I crunched the numbers backwards and forwards, wanting it all to fit together. Alas, we are NOT related; the family lore is inaccurate. When I learned this a few months ago and told my mom, she had a good laugh. I still have not broken the news to my aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom are either named after this guy or have children–including very young children–who are. And really, I’m not sure how, when, or if I’m going to tell them. Only my mom, wife, and I know.

    No fooling.

  • Barb Gannon Mar 3, 2013 @ 7:33

    One of students asked me to look up there ancestor, it was noted in his service records that he and his brother had deserted and ‘were now hiding in the woods.’ The student thought this was cool.

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