Family Tree Hugging: Unearthing My Civil War Roots

Cavalry orderly, Rappahannock Station, Virginia. (Painting by Edwin Forbes)
Cavalry orderly, Rappahannock Station, Virginia. (Painting by Edwin Forbes)

As I’ve mentioned, I am a bit of a genealogy buff. I was a history major in college, and my just-to-get-me-out-of-the-house occupation, should I hit it big in the Powerball lottery, would be genealogist.

I’ve been researching my family background since 2010. It is extremely time consuming, but also incredibly interesting because neither side of my family has much in the way of lore. No fancy trees illustrated on parchment and displayed under glass for my people. Pre-2010, my most entertaining family fact was that both sides can claim a (hard-drinking) ancestor who fell under a streetcar and lost his leg.

So you can understand why I might want to dig deeper in search of a connection to someone a little more… grand. Or failing that, someone notorious in a “wasn’t-the-X-century-quaint” kind of way. So far, I’ve unearthed no pilgrims, presidents or international playboys, which is disappointing — but then again I’ve discovered no Nazis or slave owners either.

My primary tools for research are Ancestry.com and Google, and I recently added Fold3 to the mix. Owned by Ancestry, Fold3 focuses almost exclusively on military documents. If your family arrived in the U.S. anytime before the Civil War, it’s a goldmine. I signed up on Memorial Day 2014. It seemed fitting.

(Fold3 costs about $80 per year, after a seven-day free trial, but I waited for a special deal for Ancestry.com subscribers and paid half that.)

My first discovery was a set of muster rolls for my paternal third great-grandfather, Albert Jackson White (c. 1829 – 1885). I’d never heard of the White branch of my family before I started my research, and thanks to Fold3 I now know that Albert fought on the wrong side of history – enlisting in Company D of the 151st Virginia Confederate Militia (later the 17th Virginia Cavalry) on August 21, 1861. He was promoted from private to second lieutenant on May 1, 1863, and was taken prisoner at Nineveh, Virginia the following year. Albert was released on June 17, 1865 after swearing allegiance to the United States. (I have a digital copy of his signed oath.)

At the time of his release, Albert was described as standing 5’9”, and having a “sallow” complexion (common coloring among POWs, I suspect) and blue eyes.

My research has also helped shed new light on the maternal branches of my family tree. Today I uncovered information on another third great-grandfather: Jones McCutcheon. (Great name, right?) I have not yet found proof of his military service, but there’s a document dated September 21, 1861 – one month after Albert J. White signed on to fight for the Confederacy – in which Jones pledged allegiance to the Union, and the “Government of Virginia” (a.k.a. West Virginia).

So, the Civil War didn’t just pit brother against brother. It was also third great-grandfather vs. third great-grandfather.

Harper Minner Arrest DocsBut wait, there’s more. What Civil War family legacy would be complete without a deserter? Allow me to present yet another 3x great-grandfather, Harper Minner. His is another fine family name that would be perfect for my firstborn (who would have to be a foundling on my doorstep, at this point). Too bad Harper Minner is shaping up to be quite a scoundrel…

Harper enlisted in the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry in March 1864 – not exactly an AJ White-style eager beaver. The fact that he chose the right team doesn’t really add up to much since, according to the May 1864 muster roll, he quickly fell ill and was sent to a hospital in Charleston. (Could this be the Civil War era equivalent of a LeBron James flop?)

By July, Harper had been transferred to a hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained… until an apparently miraculous recovery late in 1864 enabled him to desert.

A man named John Sheafer received a $30 bounty for arresting Harper in Kanawha, West Virginia on December 18, 1864. Harper was court martialed in January 1865, but released a few months later thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation 124, offering pardon to deserters. Records suggest he may have been charged the cost of his arrest ($39.85), although there’s no record of his payment.

Say what you will about deserters; their questionable choices mean treasure troves of documents, pulled together by the military in order to prosecute them. For this I say… thank you, Grandpa Harper.

I’m stepping away from genealogy for a few weeks, what with some travel plans and the World Cup going on. Plus, my brain is feeling overloaded with… facts.  But I’ll be back, as long as there are both auspicious blood lines and notorious ne’er-do-wells still to be discovered.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Family Tree Hugging: Unearthing My Civil War Roots

  1. Ernest White III

    I am also related to Albert Jackson White. He was my great, great, great grandfather. I would love to see the digital copy of his oath of allegiance. You should also be able to find his widow’s 1903 Confederate pension request form. Her name was Sarah A. White and it’s amazing to see a hand written document from over a century ago. Please let me know if you ever come across a photo of Albert.

    1. Wow, thanks for commenting! I found all the stuff for Albert on Fold3. It’s kind of tedious to use, because each muster record is one record, and for Albert there are a bunch. I don’t actually have a document of allegiance, just the “cover page” like the ones they use for muster rolls. It gives his physical characteristics, like that he was 5’9″ and had blue eyes. And it gives his release date, and says he signed the oath. But I don’t have the oath. 😦 If I ever find the doc or a photo, will definitely let you know!

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