Alfred Willis McNair: The Son We Hardly Know

Alfred McNair Monument Glen Gardner, NJ 1842-1866

Alfred McNair Monument
Glen Gardner, NJ

Sometimes you just don’t have many documents about a person to form much of opinion about them. They don’t take shape in your mind’s eye. There are no descriptions about their physical appearance or their personality and all you have are questions and possibilities of who they might have been. I struggle with these issues when I try to create a biography of Rev. McNair’s son Alfred. Just who was he?

Facts and Documents:

Born on 6 Mar 1842 (or 21 Feb): Alfred was baptized on 2 Nov 1842 at the Lancaster Presbyterian Church where his father, Rev. John McNair was the minister. The church record book states his birth date as 6 Mar 1842.  He was baptized by Rev. R. W. Dunlap.  (His gravestone has his birthday as 21 Feb 1842…either could be right.)

1850 Census: He is 8 years old and living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his parents Rev. John McNair (42), Susan Adeline (27), sister Eliza (10) and housekeeper Margaret Coyle (40 and born in PA).

1860 Census: He is 18 years old and living in Clinton, New Jersey with his parents and housekeeper Catharine Scannon (19 and born in Ireland). He is a “student of law.”

Jun 1863: Civil War Draft Registration – Alfred is 21, living in Clinton, New Jersey and he is a merchant.

Died on 29 Aug 1866: “We learn that Alfred McNair, son of Rev. J McNair of Clarksville, in attempting to get upon a freight train on the Central railroad, at Hampton Junction, while in motion, on the 28th ult., slipped and fell upon the track and a portion of the train passed over him, injuring him so severely that he died of his injuries the next day.” The Hunterdon Democrat 12 Sept 1866

So many unanswered questions about Alfred that we will never have the answer to….

  • Why did he give up studying law? Why did he become a merchant? Was he not interested in the law? Did he “flunk” out?
  • Why didn’t he join the military in the Civil War? Did he want to, but his parents convinced him to stay out of the war? Or did he want to avoid serving?
  • What was he doing jumping on a train? Was this a regular thing that young men did or was Alfred drunk/impaired when did it?
  • What was his character? Was he troubled or was he just still young and foolish, cocky and uncoordinated?

So many unanswered questions and no way to find the answers. However, we do know that his family must have been devastated to lose their son at 24 years old when there were so many years ahead of him.

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