As people across the nation prepare to observe Memorial Day, many Americans don’t realize that the origins of this national holiday extend back to the U.S. Civil War.
In May of 1868, three years after the conflict was officially over, a solemn group assembled at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from the Capitol, to honor the war dead. The occasion was officially called Decoration Day, so named because attendees decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers. Ceremonies of this kind were subsequently staged at sites across the country.
After World War I, observances were expanded to honor the dead from all U.S. wars, and the modern Memorial Day national holiday – always occurring on the last Monday of May – was established in 1971.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the U.S. Civil War, the event that compelled a transformed nation to honor its dead. To help mark the sesquicentennial of the conflict’s end, we’ve asked genealogists to share stories of Civil War ancestors. We hope you enjoy these narratives of courageous but imperfect men who sacrificed much in the fight for a more perfect nation.
Draw inspiration from these stories – then research histories of your Civil War ancestors. Get started by going to FamilySearch’s Civil War records page, where you can research soldiers’ battle feats, learn about injuries, discover burial sites, and explore other elements of their military and family lives.
The Hardships of a Patriot
Our first story comes from Valerie Elkins. The founder of Family Cherished, Valerie offers advice and resources people can use to record histories and enrich family legacies. You can follow her on Twitter.
My ancestors are fighters. They are an extremely patriotic bunch and can be found in every war of our country. One ancestor’s story I find especially compelling is that of my third great grandfather, Wiley T. Johnston.
Wiley, the second of 12 children, was born and lived in Corona, Alabama. In October of 1863, he became a 19-year-old private in Alabama’s 28th Infantry. Wiley’s first military action came one month later at the Battle of Lookout Mountain. There he was taken as a prisoner of war and sent to Rock Island Prison in Illinois, where he was kept until the end of the war.
The researcher and historian in me became engrossed in learning about this prison, previously unknown to me. Disease, malnutrition, overcrowding, and cold caused the deaths of more than 2,000 prisoners. It was -32° F and snowing when Wiley entered the prison in December 1863 – pretty cold for a southern boy.
Wiley was released at the end of the war to walk the more than 730 miles back home, lending credence to the family lore that Wiley’s feet were so badly damaged that he was taken in by the Ary family and nursed back to health. Wiley later married that farmer’s daughter, Sophia Ary, and they became the parents of seven children.
When I think I’m having a difficult day, I remember Wiley. I think about him enduring the hardships of prison camp, and the long, difficult walk home. I decide that my lot is not quite so hard, and I try to carry on in manner that those who come after me will draw strength from – as I have from Wiley.
Discover details about adversities faced by your U.S. Civil War ancestors. FamilySearch’s Civil War records page offers direct access to Union and Confederate service records and other military collections that can help illuminate ancestors’ lives.
A Fight for His Own Freedom
Second great grandfather Nelson (Mason) Strader was a United States Colored Troops (USCT) Civil War veteran, Company F, Regiment 125. Details about Nelson and his family life are revealed in his Civil War pension records. They reveal, for instance, that Nelson was the slave of Lewis Strader, in Green County, Kentucky, and that he enlisted without the consent of his master.
After the Civil War, Nelson returned to Kentucky with consumption, abandoning his slave wife Mary and their three children. In 1872, he legally married another woman, Louisa, in nearby Floyd County, Indiana.
Nelson ultimately succumbed to the illness he sustained in the war in January 1884, leaving both of his wives vying for his pension. Detailed testimonies of Nelson’s life were outlined in the many depositions and affidavits used to untangle the love triangle.
Opinions, descriptions of cultural events, names of siblings and kinfolks who lived on nearby slave plantations, and confirmation of slave masters provided a genealogical treasure trove. This extraordinary documentation of his unconventional life makes second great grandfather Nelson Strader a favorite Civil War veteran.
Access pension records for wide-ranging information about Civil War ancestors and their families. These invaluable records are separated into Union and Confederate collections on FamilySearch’s Civil War records page.
A War Injury’s Lifelong Impact
Our next story comes from Terri O’Connell. Terri is the founder of Finding Our Ancestors and co-founder of The In-Depth Genealogist. You can learn about her work on Facebook and by following her on Twitter.
Picking my most interesting ancestor from the Civil War is not an easy thing to do. A year ago, I would have told you I had only one ancestor who fought. Today, I know differently. My family was split during this war (as many others were), and the choices they made continued to affect the family 100 years later.
Forced to select one ancestor to highlight, I would choose William Harrison Richmond Sr. William was 16 when he joined the ranks of the Confederates on June 3, 1861. He was a soldier in the 36th Infantry (Second Kanawha Infantry) of Virginia. Three and half months later William was wounded, shot through both ankles at the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes.
Though William was injured, he was lucky enough to survive his wounds. He was given a furlough so that he could heal, but William would never go to battle again. One of his wounds never healed properly because the ball was embedded in his ankle bones. On November 26, 1862, he was discharged from service.
William was a young, unmarried man when he went to fight in the war. After he was discharged, he married Martha Jane Dix on January 12, 1875. They had six children together.
While William survived the war, he was forced to go the rest of his life with serious foot injuries. Knowing the extent of those injuries, it is hard for me to imagine how he was able to provide for his family as a farmer. Constantly being on his feet must have been very painful.
With all that William went through in the war and with his resulting injuries, I find him to be the most interesting Civil War ancestor in my family.
FamilySearch’s records collections can help you learn about injuries Civil War ancestors sustained in the fighting. Service documents, pension files, and soldiers’ home registers are among the Civil War records you can access for information on an ancestor’s medical history.
A Family Man’s Ultimate Sacrifice
One of my most interesting Civil War ancestors is George S. Vanmeter, a first cousin, four times removed. George was only 20 years old at the outbreak of the Civil War. He served until April of 1862, when he was wounded in battle. The injury resulted in George’s discharge.
Once home, he married a girl from the area and soon enjoyed their daughter’s birth. But George wouldn’t be home for long.
Despite his discharge and being under no obligation to rejoin the fighting, George reenlisted. This time he joined Company G of the 9th Ohio Cavalry. George left his 18-month marriage and a five-month-old daughter to serve again in the war.
Within months of reenlistment, George lay dead on the battlefield. He was killed in the first battle his company encountered. George’s body was never brought home, presumably buried where he fell.
George had served his country well with injuries to prove his valor. Why did he reenlist, leaving his young wife and daughter behind? Did he need the money for his family? Was he suffering from survivor guilt? These are just a few of the unanswered questions that make George S. Vanmeter’s story so compelling to me.
If you’d like to find a U.S. Civil War ancestor’s final resting place, reference FamilySearch’s military service and burial records. The Civil War records page features collections chronicling soldiers’ deeds and deaths.
Honor Your Civil War Ancestors
The Civil War changed our nation forever, setting the path for the country we all know and love today. This Memorial Day, honor those who made this possible by illuminating the lives of U.S. Civil War ancestors. You can discover moments of valor, learn about battlefield injuries, identify burial sites, and research other aspects of ancestors’ military and family lives with FamilySearch’s Civil War records.