Oregon Trails: Civil War Roots

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MEDFORD, Ore. — From 2011 to 2015, this is the Sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary – of the U.S. Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War was the bloodiest of any fought by American troops and it’s likely that if you had ancestors living in the United States by the mid-19th century, someone in your family wore either a blue or gray uniform or maybe both.

Betty Miller is a volunteer with the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society. One of her special areas of interest is Civil War family research. She has been helping local cemetery groups identify Civil War veterans and gather information about them. Miller says a lot of research can be done from home online, or at the Genealogical Society’s library on South Pacific Highway. Some databases are free, like the National Archives or National Park Service’s website. Some have a fee attached, such as Fold Three; you’ll need a little information ahead of time.

“His name. That’ll be number one,” Betty says, “What state you suspect he fought for, and if you know the regiment, or know that the was infantry or cavalry, either one. Also, if you know some of the battles.”

Even with just a name and birth date, the National Archives may be able to locate where and when your ancestor served, whether Union or Confederate. In Ron Brown’s family, they were lucky enough to find a stack of letters written by his great-great uncle to his family from the time he enlisted in the 37th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, in the fall of 1861. Recently, Ron Brown transcribed those letters which give his family a glimpse into the life of a Confederate soldier. These are copies of his muster records:

Abel W. Swaim was a 21-year-old printer, the oldest of 6 children from Ashe County, North Carolina. In his first letter home, after asking his father to send his overcoat and a few incidentals, he makes several philosophical observations about the political situation. He says, “we feel the justness of our cause, and are assured that by the power of God we shall come out more than conquerors in the end. God is just and we know we will triumph the cause of justice and humanity.”

A couple months later he advises his family to remain in eastern Tennessee “till times are more settled.” He hopefully observes that “I suppose our country will be quiet. I think our contry will become “all right” shortly.” another letter in december affirms his faith in the almighty preserving the confederate cause, when he tells his parents, “by the blessings of god, we maintain a cause of freedom miraculously. Providence seems to be hovering over our land and country.”

Another letter in January of 1862 gives a glimpse of Army life, telling them that he is in good health and has “gained 20 pounds in weight.” He says, “I enjoy camplife first rate. We have plenty to eat in our regiment — wheat flour, beef, bacon, rice, sugar and molasses.” And he says they have preaching in camps regularly every Sabbath, and singing and prayer every evening by a Baptist preacher. He does note that “we have some sickness in camps. Most, however, from measles and not dangerous.” He closes with a greeting to his sisters, that he expects to be home in October, “If the Yankees don’t git me.”

At other times he also hints that he’ll get home when he can, if he survives. In this letter, “My term of service will be out in September. Then you may look for me, anyhow if God’s will for me to live.” Then, later in May, he writes that he was sick with fever and spent some time in a field hospital, but is now back with his regiment. He says they expect to be in the fighting before long.

An undated letter hints at the challenges his unit is facing, but tells his family, “There is a determination through the length and breadth of the southern Confederacy, in the mind of every southern man, to maintain our cause, and all diligence will be used in prosecuting it […] no such word as fail enters a Southern mind […] for we know that the ruler of the destinies of nations has manifested his almighty hand in our behalf.”

Abel Swaim died as the result of wounds suffered at the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. He also had a cousin, George Idol, who served in another North Carolina unit and was killed at Gettysburg. Others in his family served on the Union Side. North Carolina was the last of the 11 Southern states to leave the Union and sent more troop and materials and suffered more losses than any other Southern state, about 40,000 North Carolinians were killed in the Civil War, including at least two from my family.

It’s probably pretty certain that if your family came to the U.S. sometime in the 10 or 20 years before the Civil War, you probably have a Civil War veteran ancestor somewhere. Simple research can help you find that ancestor and maybe uncover some of your roots. If you are interested in tracking down possible Civil War veterans, the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society can help. For information, call them at 541-512-2340, or visit them online at www.rvgsociety.org