Some time ago, in the comments space of a post that explored the meaning of having had ancestors fight for the Confederacy for some folks, a contributor to the comment section suggested that it would be a good idea to explore the meaning of having an ancestor fight for the Union.
Two of my direct ancestors fought for the Union, also known, by the way, as the United States. One served as a drummer boy in the 23rd Pennsylvania, while the other served in the 5th and 146th New York — all three were Zouave outfits, thus establishing a tradition of sharp and snappy dressing for descendants. The drummer boy signed up in 1861, while the New Yorker signed up in the summer of 1862 and joined the 5th New York in the wake of Second Manassas, where it had suffered heavy losses defending John Pope’s left flank against James Longstreet’s devastating assault. His first chance for action came at Shepherdstown, just a few days after Antietam. The drummer boy was captured at Stone House Mountain, Virginia, in September 1863, by none other than Mosby’s men, but escaped; he mustered out on September 8, 1864. The New Yorker served until the end of the war, transferring to the 146th New York during Chancellorsville.
I have visited several of the battlefields where both ancestors saw action (although one might want to qualify that in the case of the drummer boy). For the New Yorker, that includes being among one of the last men to recross the Rappahannock after Fredericksburg; defending Little Round Top right in front of the Warren statue; and charging across Saunders Field in the Wilderness. The 23rd Pennsylvania was on Culp’s Hill, although it appears to have moved between several positions during Gettysburg. Outside of that, however, I can’t tell you much about their service, what they believed, and so on. After the war the New Yorker spent some time in Florida before returning north, and, as he was there after the end of Reconstruction, I would not necessarily count him as a carpetbagger, although the family seems to have voted Republican in later generations.
Now, given what I know about the Civil War, I can speculate as to motives for joining the army on the part of these two fellows, but, lacking any other documentation, that’s as far as I can go. Nor can I infer much about their politics outside of what I know about how political affiliation tends to be passed down from generation to generation (my grandmother adored Theodore Roosevelt, whom she met, and so I’d suspect that her roots were Republican, and that’s where we find these ancestors). So, for me, the disconnect is obvious. Any effort I made to project certain interpretations of what the war was about by relying on the story of these two ancestors would tell us more about me than about them. Others may have more information about their ancestors.
In any case, the question that comes to mind is whether having ancestors who served in the Union army materially affects how I view the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I’d have to say no. Rather, I view the fact of their service as separate and distinct from matters of motivation, causation, and meaning. I can take pride and interest in their service without having that affect what I have to say about the Civil War era.
What about you?