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 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 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.



It’s Exciting Being a Viking!

My DNA Map

Last month I coughed up $129 and (no pun intended) approximately one tablespoon of saliva for the advancement of science — and an AncestryDNA™ test, which I was told would show the ethnic makeup of my DNA. It would also identify relations in’s DNA database who could potentially help me fill in any gaps in my painstakingly researched family tree.

The results validated what I suspected deep, deep in my heart. I AM A VIKING. That’s right, according to my DNA is 52% Scandinavian. 52%!

I’m also 24% Central European, 19% British Isles and 5% “other”. I’m interpreting “other” as genetic meaning ties to both Abraham Lincoln and Scandinavian royalty. (What?  Anything is possible.)

Joking aside, I never thought I had even a smidgen of Scandinavian in me, despite my pasty skin and red hair. I always considered myself Central European (German and Dutch) through and through, with a smattering of English and Irish thrown in. It matched my surname and family tree research, and it felt right too. I like fondue, schnitzel, spaetzle and strudel, as well as drinking beer from a large, boot-shaped glass. I primarily wear earth tones. (Take a walk around Berlin sometime, and you’ll see that the unofficial German national colors are brown and evergreen.)

Yet there was still something missing. I also love smorgasbords and Ikea Swedish meatballs.  Scandinavians do too!  And I have drunk my share of Akvavit (a traditional spirit produced in Scandinavia since the 15th century). Mystery solved!

I have traced no ancestors to Sweden, Norway or Denmark so I can only assume that any genetic link is to my Viking forefathers, who pillaged and marauded all over Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to mid-11th centuries. At some point my war-weary tribe must have been bitten by the Bavarian bug, and decided to settle there. And who could blame them?

Eventually, one of them must have taken up the culinary arts. (Koch is German for “cook”.)

Aside from the relief I feel, knowing where my weird foodie tastes come from, I like that I now have a much better reason to visit Scandinavia and an indisputable connection to Mad Men’s Betty Draper Francis.  In season two Betty explained her profound sadness to a fellow rider at the stables:

“It’s just my people are Nordic.”

I laughed and laughed when she said that… but now it’s personal.  I guess it’s time to work on my profoundly sad, Betty Draper face and break out the schnapps.