Deconstructing a Civil War Regiment Part III: Seeing the Forest and the Trees of History

 Smoky Mountains

It is important in interpreting your ancestor’s Civil War experience that you read a lot of history books. For some of you that will be great news, for others you are wondering just how many do I have to read??? If you are asking that last question, probably more than you will want to, but there is just no other way around it.  It is unlikely your ancestor left an account their time in the war and if they did, in all probability it wasn’t saved for posterity. My ancestor Rev. McNair published poems, sermons and debates, yet there are no letters or diaries of his time in the military. So how do I get that information?  History books!

This is how I break it down –

Civil War History

History of Civil War

Civil War History BooksYour personal library should include a good overall history of the Civil War and an atlas of the battles. I have a couple on my bookshelves that I can refer to when I need to know what was happening in governmental politics, individual states and the war in general. I shop 2nd hand bookstores, library book sales and used books on Amazon. Surprising, you can get some great deals on history books.  I can just hear my kids in 40 years pondering “what are we going to do with Mom’s Civil War book collection?”  They will be reselling them I bet….

Make a timeline of key events that happened when your ancestor was in the war.  This is how I found out that over the course of Rev. McNair’s nine months in the 31st New Jersey Regiment, that the Army of the Potomac had four different generals commanding them!  Can you imagine the chaos in the Army? How demoralized they must have felt with the lack of good leadership. There is nothing in the Regimental history or the Compiled Military Service Record of your ancestor that will tell you facts like that. You have got to dig deep and stretch out wide in your knowledge of the time period.

Civil War Regiment and Battle BooksHistory of the Regiment and Battles

I have a lot of books in my collection on the individual regiments and battles that my ancestors were in.  But you don’t have to do that. Many of these books are available online or at your local library. Search WorldCat, Google Books, Digital Public Library of America,, HathiTrust etc. Use search terms including the specific regiment, the name of the battle or the county histories where the regiment was recruited.

Job Specific History

Look at books about the job they had in the war. Was he a private in the Army? There are plenty of books that are about the everyday experience of the common soldier. It will tell you what food they ate, what items they carried on the march, what they did in their spare time, the weapons they used etc. If your ancestor was a surgeon, chaplain, Sanitary Commission worker or high-ranking officer, find a book about the challenges they faced trying to do their job.

Individual History

These are a little harder to find, but not impossible. Look for the following:Archivegrid 31 NJ Regiment Overall

  • Your ancestor’s Compiled Military Service Record
  • Your ancestor’s Pension Record if one was filed
  • Firsthand accounts by people who served in the same Regiment
  • Firsthand account of people who served in the same battles
  • Firsthand accounts of people who had the same type of job

Archivegrid 31 NJ RegimentFor individual accounts of the war, you can check all the websites previously listed, but I have had the best luck using ArchiveGrid. Using just the search term “31st New Jersey Regiment” I found two very promising first person accounts of people in Rev. McNair’s regiment. Unfortunately, I will have to go to Rutgers University to get them unless I can get the library or another NJ-based genealogist send me copies.

One final note on individual accounts. My distant cousin Jann, who also descends from James Ramsay (1770-1851) of Warren County, New Jersey, and I keep in touch. (Rev. John McNair’s son-in-law was James Ramsay Dey.) She has been incredibly helpful in filling in details of my Dey family migration to Florida and sending pictures etc. Jann contacted me after my first post about the 31st New Jersey Regiment to tell me she had ancestors that had been in that Regiment too. In fact, she has four! Abram O.S. Carpenter, Robert C. Carpenter, Abram E. Hinley and James F. Green.  I have to wonder, did they know Rev. McNair? There is a good chance that they did.  Lucky me, more things to research that might add details to the story!

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Deconstructing a Civil War Regiment Part II: Photos from the Library of Congress

Fredricksburg, VA (1861-1869) Library of Congress

Fredricksburg, VA (1861-1869)
Library of Congress

You have probably noticed that I often use photos from the Library of Congress to illustrate some aspect of my blog post. Their digital archives are vast and are usually available without copyright infringement problems. (Always check to see what restrictions there might be.)

In order to visualize where Rev. McNair served during the Civil War, I wanted to look up the locations his regiment camped and did duty. The Library of Congress is a perfect solution for this because of their extensive collection of Civil War photographs.  According to the New Jersey 31st Regimental histories they were in the following locations:

From Oct-Dec 1862: They were at Tennalytown, DC where they “engaged in picket and other duties.” Soldiers were discharged or died at Fort DeRussy, Washington D.C. and the Army Hospital, Washington D.C.   I found out that Washington D.C built 68 forts to surround the city protecting it from potential invasions from the Confederate Army in nearby Virginia!

Civil War Defenses of Washington Map Fort DeRussy and Stevens Library of Congress and National Parks Service

Civil War Defenses of Washington Map 
Library of Congress and National Parks Service

I couldn’t find photos of Fort DeRussy, but Fort Stevens was just a mile and half from Fort DeRussy so it probably had similar terrain and conditions.

Fort Stevens Washington D.C., Library of Congress

Fort Stevens Washington D.C. 1864
Library of Congress

Notice how everything looks newly built around the Army Hospital below? Washington D.C. went through tremendous growth during the Civil War. It is not surprising that so many men got sick from the lack of clean water and the infrastructure that supports healthy living conditions.

Army Hospital, Washington D.C. (1861-1865)

Army Hospital, Washington D.C. (1861-1865)

From Dec 1862-Jan 1863, they traveled to Aquia Creek, VA and later to Belle Plains, VA to do guard and provost duty. Soldiers were discharged and or died in Belle Plains, VA and 1st Division Hospital, Aquia Creek.

Belle Plain, VA 150th PA Infantry (1863)

Belle Plain, VA
150th PA Infantry (1863)

Belle Plain Landing, VA (1861-1865) Library of Congress

Belle Plain Landing, VA (1861-1865)
Library of Congress

Aquia Creek Hospital (Feb 1863) Library of Congress

Aquia Creek Hospital (Feb 1863)
Library of Congress

From January 20-23 1863 they were in the “Mud March” led by General Burnside that was supposed to be a surprise attack against General Lee. Unfortunately, there was a sudden rainstorm that ruined the attempt. There aren’t any photos from this military “blunder”, but this drawing gives an idea of what it might have been like.

Dragging artilary through the mud - 1864 Library of Congress

Dragging artillery through the mud – 1864
Library of Congress

From April-June 1863 the 31st Regiment was at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Falmouth. Soldiers died “near” the Fitzhugh House. I couldn’t find any photos on the Library of Congress website for the Fitzhugh House, so I searched using Google (isn’t that what we all do?).  I found this photo on Wiki Commons and I think this is the Fitzhugh house that was mentioned in the Regimental history.  It went by many names including Chatham Manor, but it was originally built by William Fitzhugh, a friend to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  The house was used as Union headquarters and as a Union hospital where both Clara Barton and Walt Whitman volunteered. More about the history of the house can be found at the National Park Service website.  I might be wrong about this being the Fitzhugh house mentioned in the history, but I don’t think so.

I hope you are using the Library of Congress’s digital archives for photos, maps and documents to support your family history narrative. If not, go give it a try!

  • Note – sometimes the search function on the LOC website doesn’t give me results for the keywords I am searching for. If I don’t get anything, I will use Google to see if anything pops for the LOC website and often it will.  Google just has a better search engine….
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An Undistinguished Civil War Regiment Deconstructed

Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War

Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War by William  S. Stryker

When first looking at the history of Rev. McNair’s 31st New Jersey Regiment, one notices that they are only remarkable in that their nine months of military life passed without a major battle or an interesting story to tell. Even my history professor at the University of Washington Genealogy Certificate program told me I could give it just a cursory mention in my paper about Rev. McNair. Inglorious, huh?

The authors of the History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties thought the 30th and 31st Regimental histories were so similar and “vanilla”, that they combined them so as to not have to waste too much paper on the tediousness.


The facts are:

  • They mustered in on 17 Sept 1862 in Flemington, New Jersey
  • They left New Jersey on 28 Sept 1862 to travel to Washington D.C.
  • For two months, they camped at Tennalytown, DC where they “engaged in picket and other duties”. They were attached to Casey’s Division protecting Washington D.C.
  • On 1 Dec 1862, they traveled to Aquia Creek, VA and later to Belle Plains, VA to do guard and provost duty until early January – attached to Patrick’s Brigade, Army of the Potomac.
  • They were present at the Battle of Chancellorsville, VA on May 2nd and 3rd, but did not fight
  • They mustered out on 24 June 1863 in Flemington, New Jersey

And yet, even though the Regiment of 1016 men did not fight in any battles, might not they still have a story to tell? Elizabeth Shown Mills suggests using the FAN method (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) to understand our ancestor’s experience and connection.  If I look at the records of these soldiers who served in the same Regiment as Rev. McNair, what might I learn about his experience as their Chaplain? Luckily, there is a published resource of all the men who served in the New Jersey Regiments during the Civil War. I was able to extract all the names of men who died or were disabled during their short time in the Army. Even though they weren’t in any battles, the duty was dangerous for many; 40 of them died and 36 were discharged with some type of disability – over 7% of the Regiment.

I used an Excel spreadsheet to be able to sort and look at the data differently. Reviewing the data by cause of death, a different kind of story starts to emerge. Typhoid was the number one killer with a smattering of other diseases like dysentery, diphtheria, general “fever” and cholera; picket duty when done in cramped and unsanitary conditions could be treacherous.

McNair Regiment DeathsWhen looking at the fallen by discharge or deceased date, you are able to somewhat follow the Regiment’s movement and see what it must have been like to have your comrades fall around you almost on a daily basis.

The next steps are to look at the pension records for these men to see if they give more details about the camp, their illnesses and what the Regiment was doing in more detail. I believe that Rev. McNair would have been visiting the hospitals if they were close to the Regimental camp to minister to the sick and dying.  There is a tiny chance he might have written to the family and that it would be enclosed in the pension file or he was mentioned. I need to expand the search more and look at all who served in the Regiment and perhaps they left a diary or letters?  Yes, I must get more background of this pivotal experience.  Even though they weren’t in any battles, there was suffering, they participated in long marches, they provided service to their country and many gave their lives for the cause.

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Chaplains in the Civil War

Civil War Chaplains of the Ninth Corp Petersburg, VA: October 1864 Library of Congress

Civil War Chaplains of the Ninth Corp
Petersburg, VA: October 1864
Library of Congress

I have been researching the experience of Chaplains in the Civil War for my book on Rev. John McNair and have learned some interesting facts about what Chaplains experienced.

  • There were 30 chaplains serving in the Army before the war and by the end there were over 2,300 who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
  • The role was quite controversial at the beginning of the war. There were many citizens who didn’t believe that Chaplains had a place in the military because of the division of church and state and there were others that had very specific thoughts about who they should be. The laws governing their education, status, pay and responsibilities of their service were fraught with legislative updates to clarify the issues e.g. broadening the definition of “Christian” denominations to “religious” denominations.
  • They were to be paid the equivalent of a Captain, but they never got a “rank”.
  • They were supposed to wear a uniform of a “plain black frock coat with standing collar and one row of nine black buttons, plain black pantaloons; black felt hat or army forage cap, without adornment.” Many of the chaplains preferred not to wear religious robes and instead wore the uniform of a captain.
  • They were paid $100 per month, 2 rations a day while on duty and forage for their horse.  Though because of a comma in the law, many Quartermasters used this as an excuse to not pay the Chaplains if they were “off duty” e.g. sick, captured or on another assignment for the Regiment.
  • To be commissioned as a Chaplain for a Regiment, they needed five letters from ministers from their denomination declaring their appropriateness for the office, a certified letter from the Regiment stating they had been elected by the staff leaders and an appointment from the state Governor.
  • What he carried: one valise, a roll of blankets (one of India rubber), a haversack, toilet articles, canteen and a tin cup. If they were at camp for winter quarters he could have a trunk and “bedstead”.
  • They had a wide variety of duties while serving their Regiment besides holding services and prayers. Many chaplains also:
    • Wrote letters for soldiers in the hospital.
    • Maintained libraries at camp
    • Taught reading and writing to illiterate soldiers
    • Notified families of a soldier’s death
    • Aided former slaves who made it into camp teaching them to read and write
    • Carried men and equipment on horseback during marches
    • Foraged for fresh vegetables for the soldiers
    • Assisted the wounded on the battlefields and in surgery
    • Counseled soldiers weary and sick from the war
    • Loaned money to soldiers
    • Carried ammunition and water to the men in battle

If your ancestors served in the Civil War, they would have had a minister in their Regiment (a Regiment is 10 companies of 100 men equaling about 1000 men.). Perhaps they interacted and your ancestor went to services or was helped in some way by the Chaplain. Or maybe your ancestor was not religious and he tried to keep away from the Chaplain, especially when drinking and gambling? I am pretty sure some of my ancestors fell into this category! Just something to think about when you are looking at the men that served with your ancestor.  Did he know the Chaplain from back home?


Armstrong, Warren B.. For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Brinsfield, John W., William C. Davis, Benedict Maryniak and James I. Roberson, Jr. Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Maryniak, Benedict R. and John Wesley Brinsfield, Jr.. The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of the Civil War Chaplains – The Union. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Messent, Peter and Steve Courtney. The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Woodworth, Steven. While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2001.

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My Ancestor Score: Quality vs. Quantity?

I have read a few blogs recently reporting their “Ancestor Score”. Randy Seaver did a Saturday challenge about it and Ancestry blogger Crista Cowan has a YouTube video on how to calculate your score if you use Ancestry as your genealogy database.

So, are you competitive? I like to think I am not, but I was a little embarrassed to post my score because it seems so low compared to everyone else’s.

Rachelle's Ancestor Score

Rachelle’s Ancestor Score

My excuses:

  • I stopped collecting hints for the older generations on Ancestry a few years ago because there is rarely any evidence that they are the correct ancestors. I only add a new generation if I have documents that prove it.
  • I have been doing deep research into individual ancestors which takes a lot of time. I have been working on Rev. John McNair all year (and this is my second pass at him) and there is no sign that I have exhausted all the material that is available on him.
  • I have done very little research across the pond in England, Germany etc. There has been so much research in the United States to keep me busy, I have saved the European research for “later.”
  • I need to travel to particular locations to get documents to break brick walls. e.g. Mississippi.
  • I have some really hard ancestors to find (insert whine here) like my Mexican/Spanish  migrants from 1870 who lived in Santa Cruz, California.

But my score is going to better next year….because I am just a little competitive.

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Telling Your Story: The Lessons of Memoirs

The Art of MemoirI love to read memoirs about people I admire or who have an interesting tale to tell. The three I have read most recently have some important lessons about writing our own history. I don’t know about you but writing about my life has been difficult, especially about my childhood. In my scrapbooks, often the best I have done is to label photos with names, dates and locations. I once tried to do a scrapbook called “All About Me” and got hopelessly derailed at the very beginning trying to explain my parent’s wedding and early marriage.  I never even got to my birth. But as genealogists, we know that it is more at stake than just researching and documenting the stories of our ancestors, it is about telling our own narrative for the next generation.  What would you give to have your great-grandparent’s diary, autobiography or essays they wrote about their lives?  So here are some excellent books to consider reading to get you prepared for writing the story of your life.

The first book I started with was Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.  She is probably best known for The Liars’ Club about her unconventional Texas youth. She is also a professor at Syracuse University and teaches a seminar on writing memoirs. In this book, she deconstructs memoirs, including her own, and tells us what makes them work or fall apart.

The Death of SantiniNext, I moved on to Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini. You will know Conroy from his novels and movies The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. In The Death of Santini, Conroy tells the story of his life and relationships with his parents and siblings.  He is a magnificent storyteller; whose novels came from the infinite well of his own experiences.  Despite the horrific events that Conroy discusses in his memoir, I found myself often laughing out loud at his ability to find humor in the ridiculous circumstances.

Finally, I just finished The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Anderson Cooper is a writer and CNN journalist.  Gloria Vanderbilt is from the wealthy and influential Vanderbilt family, as well as being a writer, actress and designer. Gloria is in her early 90’s now and through a year-long e-mail correspondence with her son, she reveals her thoughts and feelings about growing up without a father, her complicated relationships with her mother, grandmother, nanny and aunt, the bitter court case fighting over her guardianship, her many love affairs and how she has continued to feel optimistic about life.

What these books taught me to think about when writing my memoirs:

  • Truth – Our minds tend to mold the past to what we can live with.  Sometimes that is putting a bright and shiny veneer on it.  Sometimes it is so difficult, we put it a box so we don’t have to look at it and then we don’t really remember it very well at all. Sometimes we change the details because that is what we have heard from others so many times that it becomes the “story” we think we remember.  But we need to write the truth of lives, not the version seen through a vaseline covered lens. It might take some work, talking with people who were observers or participants of that time of your life, meditation, writing using prompts etc., but try to get to the essence of what really happened.
  • Painful Memories – All three of these memoirs deal with difficult subjects such as alcoholism, mental illness, physical abuse, abandonment, family manipulations/dysfunctions, poor or absent parenting etc., but there is incredible beauty in the writer’s resilience.  They go on to face the past and discuss their complicated feelings about events. Through the process, they forgive their families and themselves. There is power in the truth and we have no idea what effects telling your story might have on future generations of your family.  Pat Conroy literally changed the attitudes of Americans towards the value of therapy through his novel The Prince of Tides.
  • “Carnality” – Mary Karr talks about the necessity of including “carnality” in our writing. This is a reminder to include the sensory and physical details in your stories.  Write about the taste of peaches from your tree in the family garden, the smell of lilacs from your mother’s lingerie drawer, the feel of your father’s beard against your skin when he kissed you goodnight or the sight of your first bike under the Christmas tree. Was it red or blue? Was it new or 2nd hand from your older sister and repainted and given a new white basket with ribbons to make it new again? Dig deep for those specifics, they are still there in your conscious or unconscious mind.  This is what will move your reader from their heads to touching their hearts.
  • The Rainbow Comes and GoesMortality – Have you noticed that you have moved into the next generation slot? Age is moving us closer to the finish line and we are or will soon be the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family. Perhaps you have postponed sitting down to write until retirement or you get a large block of time? Pat Conroy just passed away from pancreatic cancer that he didn’t know he had until a few weeks before he died. I am so grateful that he wrote The Death of Santini and mourn all the books we will never have from him because of his death at 70.
  • Your Voice – You need to tell the story…no one is going to tell it like you and remember the things you do. In listening to Gloria Vanderbilt read her portions of the book on the audio version I listened to, her voice breaks when talking about her nanny Dodo and certain childhood memories….80 years later and she is still moved to tears by what happened to her. I suspect that most of us are all still trying to make sense of our childhoods and what it meant. Getting your story told from your perspective is essential! Anderson Cooper had to research his own mother’s life, looking at newspapers and film footage because they had never discussed her childhood beyond the basics before they started this e-mail exchange. Don’t make your children get your story from public records and second-hand sources.  They will want to hear it in your words.

I have been talking to my Grandmother for years about her life and very seldom have I been able to get her to go deeper than the “party line”. She would have been a great political spin doctor had she been born in more recent generations. What have you not told your children? And I am not just talking about the historical facts, but your feelings about them. Don’t we owe our descendants more than the vague chronology of events or even worse the “myths” that were created?  Tell your story, for you and for your children.

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Non-Fiction Writing: Lessons from Erik Larson

Dead WakeI struggle with bridging the gap between writing dry informational biography and creating captivating non-fiction when writing about my ancestors.  I don’t want to add creative flourish if it is not completely accurate and based on some historical evidence.  There are so many challenges to finding the right atmospheric background that gives a story texture and mood that we can also footnote. Let’s face it, sometimes we don’t even have a physical description of our ancestor.  Did he have red or brown hair? Was she short or tall? Who knows? How do we make the reader fall into the story of our ancestor and get to know their character when we have so few illustrations of it in the documents they left behind. Urgh. That is why I read a lot of non-fiction writing and try to learn from the authors on how they make facts rich, exciting and weave them into the overall narrative.

the devil in the white cityLast week, Erik Larson came to Knoxville to speak about his latest book Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  I was able to support Knox County Library’s fundraising efforts and hear the author of the brilliant Devil in the White City discuss his writing process.  Larson is an entertaining speaker and he amused the audience with stories and a few thinly veiled political innuendos.

Here are some things I learned about how Larson writes:

  • He sees himself as “animator of history”.  It is not his goal to inform, but to create a rich experience of the past.
  • He uses very few photos because “it takes the reader away from the text.” There is one picture of the Lusitania and a map of Southwest Great Britain in 1914 in his latest book.
  • In the Garden of the BeastsHe likes to “find historical details that will light the reader’s imagination.” Ex. Carl Sandburg’s lock of hair that Larson found at the Library of Congress that proved the affair between the Ambassador’s daughter, Martha Dodd and Carl Sandburg (In the Garden of the Beasts).
  • He believes that if you tell a story properly with compelling characters, you will get lost in the story.  Ex. The story of Nellie in Dead Wake. Her diary was found floating on the water after the Lusitania sank, but Nellie perished.
  • In selecting the correct story to tell, he looks for 1) an interesting idea to begin with 2) a very powerful narrative arc and 3) rich archival materials.  He says, “it’s a lot like looking for a spouse”!
  • He spends 2 years to research a story and 2 years to write it, with a little bleed over in the middle. (Yikes…that explains what is taking so long with my book on Rev. McNair…even though I am half way done with writing, I am still researching when I find gaps.)
  • He has shelved ideas after doing some research.  What helps to make his decision if a subject will work is by doing a draft book proposal that includes 1) a sample chapter 2) a summary of the book 3) an outline of what will be included.

Writing genealogical history is not quite the same as writing the biography of a famous person or the history of a well-known event.  We will have won the lottery if we have “rich archival materials” for most of our ancestors, but we can dig deep for the historical context of the events that surrounded them and write about those.  Pick up one of Larson’s books and you will have an excellent example of how to it.

Posted in Genealogy General, Writing Family History | Tagged | 2 Comments