So Your Ancestor Fought For the Union …

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?

22 thoughts on “So Your Ancestor Fought For the Union …

  1. Mark March 28, 2011 / 1:21 pm

    It’s much easier to be objective if you don’t have social costs –or gains– for espousing opinions on the Civil War. The “which side was your family on” really should be “What gives you more social points — bashing or honoring the Union?””

    It’s almost unheard of, even 150 years later, for anyone to go against their social rewards regarding the CW. That’s human nature. As Shelby Foote said, the South was preoccupied with the Civil War — because they lost.

    My ancestors fought for the Confederacy — but like most Confederate soldiers, probably deserted. He told his family he was captured and kept in a Union prison camp, and maybe he was. But he also might have been “absent without leave” — since over 3/4 of the Confederate soldiers were.

    Jeff Davis himself let that cat out of the bag, about the massive Southern desertions, in his Mobile speech (strange, isn’t it, how speeches like that never get much attention)

    One of the big unanswered questions about post Civil War– how did all those Southern “absentees” deal with that? I’d love to know!

    It’s telling that the Lost Cause and honorable South myth didn’t pick up steam till 1890-1900, when the sons and soon grandsons of the soldiers were (naturally) bragging about their fathers and grandfathers.

    They could hardly say “Oh yeah, my dad deserted right after Sharpsburg”, and the family alive at time of the CW, weren’t likely to rain on the kid’s parade.

  2. Jeffry Burden March 28, 2011 / 1:28 pm

    I had more than two dozen relatives, that I know of, fight in the United States forces. Five of them joined the same company of the same regiment (22nd Iowa Infantry) at the same time, in the great enlistment push of August 1862. They may have joined for the money, for the adventure, for pure patriotism, to keep the Mississippi open to unhindered crop transport to the Gulf, some combination of those reasons, or other reasons entirely.

    I have no earthly clue what precisely motivated them. I would not presume to use their service as firm evidence of anything except that they served, and certainly not to draw larger historical conclusions .

  3. Harry Smeltzer March 28, 2011 / 2:29 pm

    I haven’t really researched my family history, but a few years ago I learned that my dad’s dad’s dad – my great-grandfather, that is – was an 18 year old volunteer in the 205th PA, who was wounded during the fighting at Petersburg at the beginning of April, 1865. The only soldier letter at Carlisle for that regiment happens to be from a member of my ancestor’s company, and from that it appears they were fairly rabid McClellanites even though they had never served under him. But well before I learned the little I have about great granddad, I was a Union man in my leanings, and had discarded the “McClellan is Satan” idea in which so many revel. So I say the fact that I have a direct link to a Union vet has had no impact on how I view the whole mess.

    • Will Hickox March 28, 2011 / 4:05 pm

      Have you considered the possibility that many of the men of that company were AoP veterans of ’61-62? A great many reenlisted in the final months of the war, although I’ve also read that Pennsylvania’s late-war regiments were largely filled with new recruits.

  4. Chuck Brown March 28, 2011 / 2:30 pm

    My great grandfather served in the 23rd Wisconsin and was part of the Red River campaign. He was severely wounded when an artillery caisson ran over him. I have a banjo (Confederate) he is said to have picked up on the battlefield, obviously not the one on which he was wounded. Why he volunteered is unknown. I don’t even know how he got to Wisconsin. I like to think he was antislavery.

  5. Roger E Watson March 28, 2011 / 2:54 pm

    I only have one relative (that I know of) that joined the Union forces. At 18, his motivation was the bounty he was paid for signing up. Since the family was dirt poor, it was immediately turned over to his Mother. He joined the 20th Maine. While the regiment was “late” for Antietam, they acquitted themselves nicely at Fredericksburg where they attacked the left side of Marye’s Heights. He was down with smallpox during Burnside’s Mud March but had recovered well enough for the journey to Gettysburg. He died during the defense of Little Round Top and his name can be found on the 20th Maine monument. While this knowledge led to a greater interest in the war, I don’t think it has affected my views on the war or its aftermath.

    Your “choice” in relatives seems to mirror my interest in Civil War prints. While I have several of Gettysburg and the 20th Maine, my living room walls also have Troiani’s, The Red Devils (The 5th NY at Gaines Mills) and Rocco’s Into the Wilderness which depicts the 146 NY at Saunders Field. And, yes, they were snappy dressers !!!

    • Greg Taylor March 28, 2011 / 4:11 pm

      I am very fortunate that I possess 35 letters that my g-g grandfather a Welsh immigrant, and Union Volunteer with the 2nd. PA Heavy Artillery wrote during his 3 yr. enlistment. It is clear in his writing that his motivation for fighting included the elimination of slavery. On March 8, 1863 he wrote to his sweetheart Annie, “I received a letter from [my former] home [in Wales] some three weeks ago. They are all well. Mother & Father are perfectly satisfied with my enlisting now. Just fancy what questions mother asked me in her last letter, but you must bear in mind she is for the North zealously & detests the South mainly for the “peculiar institution.”
      He continues, “I date Freedom’s battle began from January 1st, 1863, & God I hope will bless us to be worthy to fight the glorious battles of freedom.”
      I must say that I take great pride having in having an ancestor fighting for the noble cause of “freedom”, but I can’t say that it materially affects how I view the Civil War except that it comfirms that the “cause” was more than just to preserve the Union.

      BTW, my ancestor, Adj. William B. Phillips was one of 6 officers in the 2nd. PA Provisional “Heavies” to be captured at the “Crater”. This regiment led the charge into the pit having replaced the USCT who were initially slated to lead.

      • Will Hickox March 28, 2011 / 4:36 pm

        Greg, I would be interested to hear if these letters contain any references to the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. They were brigaded with the 2nd PA and the two commands apparently had something of a rivalry. The 14th is a special research interest of mine.

        • Greg Taylor March 28, 2011 / 6:47 pm

          The letters do not reference the 14th. NY HA but two of the letters were written directly from the battlefield. One describes the assault of June 17, 1864 and one written just 10 days prior to the mine explosion gives a beautifully written and detailed description of a nighttime artillery duel. You may garner something from “reading between the lines” of these letters. They can be accessed by “clicking” on my name at the heading of this post.

          • Will Hickox March 28, 2011 / 8:16 pm

            Greg: I’ve been reading the letters and they are a great resource and very well-written.

  6. Will Hickox March 28, 2011 / 4:14 pm

    Academics sometimes dismiss genealogical studies as mere antiquarianism, but I disagree. Finding out the role, however small, that one’s ancestors played in what Harry aptly calls “the whole mess” can give the past a sense of immediacy. Personal experiences can also illuminate wider forces. For example, when I read in my ancestor’s pension application that, after being wounded at Second Fredericksburg, he could only talk to a surgeon who knew German, it demonstrates how just how close-knit immigrant communities could be, even for a man who had immigrated at least ten years prior and served in the army almost a year.
    Again, in the case of another ancestor, the fact that a 47-year-old was able to enlist and then die of neglect in a hospital a few months later shows how lax recruitment standards were and also the poor state of army medical care even near the end of the war.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 28, 2011 / 4:36 pm

      I think that’s true. Sometimes you find out very interesting things when you dig deep enough.

  7. Will Hickox March 28, 2011 / 4:16 pm

    Brooks, in case you’re not aware, there is an excellent collection of letters by a boy who served in the 5th and 146th titled “Charlie’s Civil War.”

  8. Commodore Perry March 28, 2011 / 9:03 pm

    I have no direct ancestors who fought for the Union, but several siblings of ancestors from east Tennessee sure did. In fact, one of them crossed into Kentucky in order to join the Federal army, (just as I had siblings of unrelated ancestors cross from KY into TN to join the Rebels), but it was still designated a Tennessee unit, the 8th Volunteers. He wrote a poem that gives some insight into why he went to war, but it doesn’t totally explain everything. There are elements of personal glory-seeking and pride in his country, as well as talk of liberty and freedom, but he wasn’t clear on whether he wanted to extend that liberty and freedom to slaves. You can read it here

    I believe I can honor him and his ardent Unionist kin, some soldiers, in the Greeneville area just as I can honor my Confederate soldier ancestors, the situation not being mutually exclusive. Doing so, I feel, indeed makes learning about the war a bit more personal. One of the prime reasons I began studying the era is the immense human passion of everyone who lived through it; my ancestry, which I really only learned after I got into reading about the war, has added to my own personal passion.

  9. James F. Epperson March 29, 2011 / 4:27 am

    I think you have heard/read this story, but I’ll repeat it.

    My great-grandfather, Benjamin R. Felts, joined the 128th Illinois in 1862, deserted as part of the total collapse of that regiment, returned to the ranks, was transferred to the 9th Illinois Mtd. Infantry, participated in a skirmish at Salem, Mississippi, took a bullet up the length of his lower right arm, was captured, spent a year at Andersonville (and other prisons), and was exchanged in December, 1864, as part of a general exchange of men unfit for active service. I researched most of this while in grad school, and wrote it up for the family. My grandmother (his daughter-in-law) was shocked to learn that “Father Felts” had deserted. “They wouldn’t have let him march in the Grand Review if he was a deserted.” “Mimi, he *didn’t* march in the Grand Review.” She was even more shocked to learn that his widow had applied for and accepted a pension after he died.

    It is probably true that some of my interest in POW matters stems from his service.

    There are photographs of him showing the permanent contraction of his right arm as a result of his wound. How he worked as a physician with only one usable arm is beyond me.

  10. MarkD March 29, 2011 / 9:24 am

    An ancestor of mine fought for the Union for an Indiana regiment. Though I have no letters of his, reading the diary of another Hoosier, Theodore Upson, I saw how he said one motivation was that “the slave power” had to be put down, so I doubt it is a stretch to say it likely that others from the same region also shared that sentiment, even though the state also had a fairly large set of pro-Southern sympathies. Upson also shows that being against slavery was not incompatible with racism. Some of it is pretty hard to read.

  11. MarkD March 29, 2011 / 9:27 am

    On the issue of Confederate desertions that the other Mark raises, I just finished a book (Bloody Promenade) that cited a book on the topic of dissertions saying that Union desertions were actually higher in the Army of the Potomac than the Lee’s army. I’d never heard that before, but I know the quality and motivation of later Union recruits were considered poor by almost everyone so I suppose it could be true. Anyone know about the relative number of desertions?

    • Souscolline March 29, 2011 / 12:04 pm

      I have been interested in the Civil War since my teens, I’m 73 now, and I majored in history at college but taught French. I knew that there were no ancestors on my father’s side who served in the war. On my mother’s side, her father came from England and her mother was born in Troy, NY. The only thing I remember my mother’s family mentioning was that my grandmother’s father, John Shaughnessy, was murdered on his way home from work. No other details were given. A cousin and I decided to go to Troy and see if we could find any information on the Shaughnessy family. It was when my cousin put in the name of John Shaughnessy’s widow that up popped a reference to a Civil War pension. We wrote the Archives and they send us Shaughnessy’s war record along with his widow’s pension application forms and affidavits. Shaughnessy served in Co. I (Nail Factory Co.) of the 169th NYV for 3 years enlisting in the summer of 1862. His service record is very interesting but it was the pension records that answered a lot of questions about Shaughnessy’s death and what happened to his widow and 5 children. Shaughnessy left work at the Nail Factory on Monday the 17th of December 1888 and never returned home. I can just imagine the panic and concern of his widow and children when there was no word or any indication what happened to him. This was but a week before Christmas. The body did surface in April of 1889 in the Hudson River south of Albany. His body must have been well preserved in the icy waters of the river as he was identified by his son, his brother and by neighbors. An inquest was held in Albany and the cause of death was “asphyxia” drowning. No other findings were reported. The family tragedy was just beginning for the widow and her children. My grandmother who married my grandfather at 16 moved to Schenectady and her mother and siblings followed. When my great-grandmother Emma Shaughnessy filed for a pension, there were many forms and affidavits to complete to prove that she was the widow of John Shaughnessy. Minor errors had to be corrected, and since two of her children were still minors, birth or baptismal certificates had to be provided, etc., so they could receive a pension too. During the course of all this filing, the widow Emma was diagnosed with uterine cancer, unable to work, and living with her children. When the pension was finally approved in November 1895, Emma Shaughnessy had since died. All this I discovered in the past two or three years. I am still learning more about the 169th and John Shaughnessy’s participation in the war. He was 18 when he enlisted and I suspect that a very good reason to do so was the fact that men he worked with at The Albany Iron Works’ nail factory were joining up. There are no photos of or letters to John Shaughnessy existing as far as I know. And the big question for me remains: why didn’t my mother or anyone else in the family talk about their grandparents?

    • Mark March 29, 2011 / 1:35 pm

      My source is Jeff Davis.

      If you think 3/4 of the Union soldiers deserted — and then virtually ALL their soldiers deserted — think again.

      I’m well aware there is an absurd notion that the Union had more deserters, but unless Jeff Davis lied, unless Pollard lied, unless the COnfederate War Department lied, than that is nonsense.

      Lee said his army “was evaporatiing” — was he lying? Davis said 2/3 of them deserted by fall of 1864, was he lying? Pollard wrote powerfully about massive desertions — to the point that Johnston and Beauregard had to get in Davis’s face and explan, there virtually WAS no more Confederate Army — they HAD RUN AWAY or refused to fight any more.

      My sources are Lee, Davis, Pollard, the Confederate War Department as reported by Pollard. Things they said AT THE TIME — not something dreamed up later, the same folks who want to show the South as honorable, brave, and fighting for states rights–none of which is remotely true.

  12. Alton Bunn March 30, 2011 / 10:32 am

    All confederates in my ancestry. All I know of them is from service records I could obtain. I know nothing of their motivations of course. The fact that my great great grandfather was conscripted in May 1864 at age 19 would seem to indicate an unwillingnes to serve unless compelled is as close as I’ll probably get.

  13. Grendel March 30, 2011 / 4:38 pm

    @Mark, I wouldn’t say that was cowardice; it shows how that many common southerners were not willing to fight for a ‘rich man’s war.’

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