We know what the famous guys were up to, but what were our own relatives doing during the war?
Most of New Orleans thought Ben Butler was bad news, according to Dr. Charles Bias, who was teaching the Civil War history course I was taking in graduate school.
My pal Kelly, sitting next to me, concurred. Tales of Butler’s iron-fisted administration had come down through his family, who had migrated to New Orleans from Salem, Mass., by the time the war started.
His family had had rather a storied past long before the war—Kelly, it turned out, was a direct descendant of one of the victims of the Salem witchcraft trials.
I felt a twinge of envy. Not because his ancestor had been hanged as a witch, but because he knew about it.
Despite the keen interest I’d always had in history, I knew virtually nothing about my own family’s story. Where my ancestors came from or how they wound up in the hollows of southwestern West Virginia, I hadn’t a clue. The only shreds of information I had were that my paternal grandfather, Walter Baker, a railroad worker and farmer, had been an old-style Democrat; and my maternal grandmother, Beulah Perry Jackson, was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who wasn’t shy about the fact that her “granddaddy was a Yankee soldier.”
I wanted to know more, but wasn’t sure where to start. Other obligations prevented me from spending the time sifting through southern West Virginia records would have required, anyway. So years went by and all I learned was that the Yankee soldier’s name was Andrew Perry and he had become a country doctor after the war, and that I had ancestors named Warrick on the Baker side.And I suspected there were a lot of other people in the same situation. As we get further from the war, the danger that those family histories might be doomed to obscurity—or lost forever—only gets worse. When my young nieces started school, I knew it would just be a matter of time before they studied history; so beginning in 2008, I decided to buckle down and do what I could to rediscover my own family’s history, with the hope that what I learned along the way might be helpful to other folks. And I secretly hoped that if my nieces ever found themselves sitting next to a descendant of an accused Salem “witch” in history class, I might be able to give them their own family stories to tell.
Fortunately by then the Internet was making genealogical research much easier. One of my mother’s distant relatives had painstakingly compiled the Perry family tree back to the 18th century, when our Perrys had arrived from Britain. I found birth and death dates for Andrew Jackson Perry and his throng of children—but not much else. The Warricks had also been at work on their own pedigree, provided to me by an aunt. But there was nothing in it about Civil War service despite the fact that some of those Warricks were certainly around during that time.
But I found lots of other candidates for Civil War service on sites such as Ancestry.com—a Muncy, a Frazier, even a Thomas Jackson on Mom’s side (I know what you’re thinking, but he wasn’t that Thomas Jackson) and a Harless and possibly an Adkins and a Davis on Dad’s. I started to feel like a detective on the hunt for clues to my own past. With each new piece to the puzzle I became more addicted to the search. The problem was that many of my ancestors had common names, which meant finding the right Baker or Davis would be a challenge. And Adkins? My dad had never known his great-grandfather and didn’t know his first name, and I couldn’t find a good record for it. Since you can’t walk a mile in southwestern West Virginia without tripping over at least a dozen Adkinses, I had little hope of figuring out which Adkins my great-great-grandfather might actually be.
But the more I searched, the more promising the trail became for Andrew Perry, John Albert Harless and a Fielden Warrick. So I followed it—all the way to the National Archives.
Connecting the dot.coms
Andrew Jackson Perry had been every bit as colorful as his name, apparently. A Unionist to the end, he had built his own coffin and painted it red, white and blue, my grandparents once told me. During the war, they added, he had contracted a disease that made his hair fall out—so for most of his adult life, they said, he sported a black wig. And as I later discovered, he was said to be one of the best “fever doctors” in his patch of West Virginia. Whether he had any formal training, I can’t say.
He’d married twice—the first time in 1868 to my great-great-grandmother, Emmaline Maynard, with whom he’d had several children; then again after her death, when he was about 53 and his new bride was about 17, and had several more children. I found online a copy of her widow’s pension claim, filed with the federal pension office after he died in 1930. According to the claim, he’d served in Company E of the 45th Kentucky Infantry. That made perfect sense: Andrew Perry had spent his whole life on the western border of Virginia by the time the war started—an area that would be part of West Virginia when it ended—and right across the Big Sandy River and its tributary Tug Fork from Kentucky, which had remained loyal. Crossing the river to join a Federal troop would be a natural choice for a Unionist in that part of Virginia; plenty of others from his neck of the woods had apparently done the same thing, according to the 45th Kentucky’s roster.
Fielden Warrick was born in Grayson County, Va., not too far from the North Carolina border, according to census records. By 1850, he and my great-great-great-grandmother, Rhoda McCoy, had moved northwest to Russell County, along with their year-old son and several McCoy family members. But by 1860, they were in Cabell County, just west of where Andrew Perry lived and also across the Big Sandy from Kentucky. They now had six children, including 6-year-old Nancy—destined to marry one Jackson Moss Baker and become my great-great-grandmother.
Fielden Warrick, according to the National Park Service’s online Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, had indeed served in the war, joining a Confederate Virginia regiment. But not, I would discover, in Cabell County.
John Albert Harless was also living in Cabell County, Va., on the eve of the war; Thomas W. Jackson, like Andrew Perry, lived in neighboring Wayne County. When rhetoric dissolved into war, both John and Thomas had sided with the South.
I’d found most of this information on Web sites using my own computer in my own home. But I’d also found a lot of problems. Given the sheer volume of people using social genealogical sites, it wasn’t surprising—but was disappointing nevertheless—to find a lot of misinformation being picked up and accepted as fact. There were many explanations for that, including the number of people with similar names (there were a lot of George Bakers living in the Virginias during the war years, including my great-great-great-grandfather, who may or may not have served in an early West Virginia Union division), variations in spelling of the same name even in official records, missing records and inconsistencies in the ways records were kept. There were apparently at least two men named Sam Frasher (or Frazier) in Wayne County, (West) Virginia; one served in the 8th Virginia Cavalry and one was my great-great-grandfather. But after a lot of sifting through information other searchers had already compiled, I’m still not sure if Sam Frasher the soldier was also Sam Frasher my ancestor.
Simple geography posed an additional challenge—since Virginia was itself divided during the war and was the scene of an inordinate amount of fighting, county court records that could have helped match identities were missing or destroyed. And, as Andrew Perry had demonstrated, it wasn’t unusual along the borders for a soldier to live in one state and suit up in another.
Despite all the searching I’d done online, there were still a lot of loose ends. Since I live about an hour from Washington, D.C., I decided to head down there earlier this year to try to find some answers.
Trevor Plante is a military archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, and specializes in 19th and early 20th century military records. Armed with names and a few dates, I met up with Trevor at the National Archives, where he gave me some tips for navigating through the volumes of records housed there. Decades after the conflict, the War Department had compiled service records for Civil War volunteers on both sides. Enlistment records, muster rolls, even clothing
requisitions were included, and the National Archives had them all. Or at least all that survived the war. Any time a soldier showed up in a record, Trevor said, War Department clerks had filled out a card with that information and put it in his compiled service record folder.
Through partnerships between the National Archives and organizations like Ancestry.com and Footnote.com, many of these records have been digitized, and they’re searchable on computers in the archives’ research rooms. You can also see the original file. Simply fill out a short form and submit it to the archives staff, who will pull the file for you during the next scheduled “pull time.” Trevor pointed me to a computer and turned me loose.
I soon discovered that despite what other researchers had claimed, my George H. Baker was apparently not a member of the 9th West Virginia Infantry; the one in the records was about 18 when he enlisted, and my relative would have been considerably older. The soldier Baker was also from a different region, although he enlisted in Cabell County. Lesson No. 1: Always carefully check dates and locations.
Andrew Perry, however, was right where I hoped to find him: in the 45th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry, Company E. I found his enlistment papers—dated September 14, 1863, and identifying him as a 16-year-old farmer who had been born in Logan County, Va. He signed up for 12 months, and mustered out on Christmas Eve, 1864. I also found a medical record showing he’d been hospitalized in Ashland, Ky., in the autumn of 1864—but no clue as to whether his illness had caused any premature baldness.
The 45th Kentucky had, among other activity, given chase to one John Hunt Morgan and his infamous Confederate raiders in late spring 1864, including an engagement with Morgan’s forces at Pound Gap on June 1 and Mount Sterling on June 9. In the first instance, Morgan prevailed. In the second, Federal forces dislodged Morgan’s men; Morgan reportedly moved on to Lexington. And muster rolls for the 45th Kentucky from May and June 1864 show young Private Andrew Perry was present.
That could have posed an interesting predicament for my very existence, considering the curious case of John Albert Harless, who I learned might have been riding with Morgan in Kentucky.
Another researcher had suggested John Albert had served in the 2nd Battalion of the Kentucky Mounted Rifles, Confederate—assigned in the spring of 1864 to one of Morgan’s brigades. I couldn’t find a record for John Harless in the 2nd Kentucky, so I dismissed it.
I did, however, find John A. Harless in the 16th Virginia Cavalry, in which he had enlisted February 1, 1864, in Cabell County, W.Va. On March 2, he’d been detached to Wayne County, W.Va. By autumn, he was absent without leave. This did not surprise me. Many years later, he’d go AWOL on my great-great-grandmother, too.
Trevor cautioned me, however, that being absent without leave didn’t carry quite the stigma for most Civil War soldiers as it does today. Most of them were volunteers, he noted, and when their time was up—or in winter, when there was little activity—they assumed they were free to go. Although officers, many of whom were Regular Army, might view the matter differently, going AWOL didn’t necessarily indicate cowardice or desertion on the part of a volunteer.
But I was still curious about the insistence of others that John Albert also served in the 2nd Kentucky. And if he did, had my two great-great-grandfathers been shooting at each other during one of Morgan’s raids? That might not trump a Massachusetts witch hunt, but would make a dandy story nevertheless.
I looked up the muster roll for the 2nd Battalion—and found “John A. Harlis” in Company D. John Harlis, born in Logan County, Va., enlisted for three years in August 1862. Could this be my John Harless?
I later discovered the answer in Kentucky pension records. Many years after the war, John Albert had not only left my great-great-grandmother, he’d left West Virginia, too—and moved to Kentucky, where the commonwealth eventually authorized pensions for Confederate veterans. His pension application, filed in 1912, had his name spelled as both “Harless” and “Harliss,” and indicated his birth in (West) Virginia on the right date and stated he had served in the 2nd Battalion, Kentucky Mounted Rifles. Further, he claimed he “got out at Louisa [Ky.] at the close of the war” and had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Some of his former comrades attested to those facts. Lesson
No. 2: Check all possible spellings for your ancestor’s name.
So…had he served in both units at once? Was he a bounty jumper? Not necessarily. There was at least one other John Albert Harless in the area; he lived in Cabell County and also had a father named William. But according to census records, it was a completely different household. The John A. Harless who went AWOL on the 16th Virginia might not be my John Harless after all. The conclusion? My great-great-grandfathers could very well have been chasing each other around Kentucky in 1864. And I might not be here if either of them had been a better shot. Lesson
No. 3: Check to see whether other family members in the household are your relatives, too.
And my Thomas Jackson? According to records in Wayne County, W.Va., this Thomas Jackson was the “son of Miles and brother of Henry”—which definitely makes him my Thomas—and definitely joined the 16th Virginia Cavalry.
He appears to have spent the bulk of his service in Federal prison camps, according to his service records at the National Archives. Captured months after his enlistment on March 4, 1863, he was sent first to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, then to Johnson’s Island near Sandusky for “being a Rebel officer”—the Yankees had identified him as a first lieutenant, although one Union record notes that he “claims to be a private in the 16 Va. Cav,” which is exactly how his rank is recorded on his 16th Virginia muster record. The Rebels might not have given him a promotion, but the Yanks obviously did.
By the winter of 1864, he was apparently ready to rejoin the Union. He appears on a Johnson’s Island roll of prisoners “desiring to take the oath of allegiance, January 15, 1864.” The record states he “is convinced that he was in error in joining the Rebel Army, is very penitent and desires to take the oath and return to his allegiance.” But it would be more than a year before he was paroled and sent to Point Lookout, Md., for exchange. Shortly after his parole, he was admitted briefly to Wayside Hospital (General Hospital No. 9) in Richmond, Va., then sent to Camp Lee.
Fielden Warrick, by contrast, had a circuitous military career. A member of the 4th Virginia Regiment—part of Stonewall’s Brigade—he had been wounded August 28, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was out of commission for more than a year, then transferred to the 8th Virginia Cavalry, which my colleague Dana Shoaf and I concluded might indicate an injury that made marching difficult. The 8th Virginia had gone west with General James Longstreet, then returned for the final standoff that led to Appomattox.
But as I compared the records, something didn’t quite add up: This Fielden Warrick wasn’t the right age to be my ancestor. As I compared census records, it became clear that my Fielden—aged about 34 when the war started—was an uncle or cousin to this one, known as Fielden K. Warrick, and, like George Baker (in his 40s when the war began), didn’t appear to have served. Back to Lesson No. 1: Always carefully check dates and locations.
I’ve learned an awful lot about my family as a result of this exercise, but I still have plenty of questions—not least of which is, given their upbringing along the border, what compelled them to choose whatever side they did. Absent letters or diaries, I can only speculate. I don’t know if “Doc Andy” Perry really got a disease that made his hair fall out, and I’m still pretty shaky on whether he and John Albert Harless actually squared off on either side of John Hunt Morgan. And I’ve spent a lot of time kicking myself for not having asked my grandparents and great-grandparents more about them when I had the chance. Lesson Number 4: Never miss an opportunity to ask your family members about your history.
What fascinates me most—and gives me hope—is that not only did they all make it back home to the same border counties they’d left, but despite their pre-war differences, they lived in neighboring communities where their children grew up together, married and eventually produced me.
Though it should be said that John Albert might have been a little chagrined to find that not only was his Virginia home now in a different state, but shortly after the war it was annexed into a newly created county named for a former president: Lincoln.
Another reason, perhaps, for moving to Kentucky.
Tamela Baker is editor of America’s Civil War.
If you would like to learn how to research your family’s civil war roots at the National Archives watch this how to http://vimeo.com/29024036