Rev. John McNair’s Poetry

mcnair_john-poems-cover-pageBesides being a minister, an evangelist, a Chaplain in the Army and public speaker, John McNair was a poet.  He published his book of poetry Eighty Original Poems Secular and Sacred Chiefly Adapted to the Times  in 1865, after the Civil War ended and just a little over a year before he died at the age of 60. The book of poems was what originally guided me to Rev. McNair. My grandmother gave me the book of poetry when I was in my 20’s and when I was looking for a project for genealogy class at the University of Washington, Rev. McNair became a logical choice. Who knew I would still be going back to this small book of 80 poems to try to understand John in a deeper way and fill in the gaps when records can’t tell the story.

I am not sure if John was a great poet, in fact, I suspect he wouldn’t have been classified as particularly remarkable by literary critics. However, he wrote about a variety of topics from Washington, Garibaldi, the death of Lincoln, succession, drunkenness, self-conceit, his mother, home, women, the flag, Sabbath breakers, death, being a minister and my favorite “The Man of Honor” which I believe was his own personal code and the ideal of who he wanted to be.  I have used his poetry throughout the book of his life to illustrate his feelings on specific subjects. How cool is it that I have his own words, even if they are in rhyme!

So, here is the ah-ha that I had recently….if I have this book, where else is it?  I had never checked World Cat to see what other libraries might have it. And guess what? The book was in 119 libraries throughout the world.  Some of the locations had the electronic copy of the book, but the physical book was in over 50% of the libraries. And the libraries who had the actual hard copy of the book included:

  • The Library of Congress
  • University of Oxford
  • Abraham Presidential Library
  • Jefferson Library (yep, Monticello)
  • Harvard University
  • McGill University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates)
  • University of Auckland
  • National Library of Malaysia
  • University of Tasmania

How did the book get so far afield?  How many copies of the book were printed? Isn’t it fascinating that these libraries actually wanted it???

The next thing I did was to see if there were copies I could buy somewhere.  And yes, there were two copies available on Amazon through their 2nd hand booksellers. One was $65 and the other $74.  Amazing! Just how many copies did Rev. McNair get printed? Did he sell them or give them away? His book of his poetry just keeps me returning for new insights.

Finally – I am at the end of writing about Rev. John McNair’s life for the 2nd time. It still needs a few small holes filled in that require research trips to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, so I am struggling whether to do a small print of the book to give to my family for Christmas even though it really isn’t done.  I just don’t want to send it libraries like the Princeton Theological Seminary where he went to college if it’s not complete. But, when is genealogy research ever done? Will I ever be happy with having done enough? I don’t know.  What do you think I should do?

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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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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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