“I know only three things about my great great grandfather, Jacob Vail. I know he fought on the winning side of the Civil War; I know what he looks like, because we have a picture of him on the wall at home; and I know that I was named after him. That’s it.” That was what Jacob Anderson from Lindon, Utah said when his high school teacher gave him an assignment to discover something interesting about one of his ancestors.
At a loss for where to look and what to search for, Anderson’s father suggested that his son could visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. He knew that the Family History Library has useful records about the Civil War. Anderson went to the Family History Library with what little information he had and the hope that maybe he could find enough to finish the assignment. He was not expecting to have the experience he had after only a few hours at the library
Working with a volunteer at the reference desk, Anderson soon discovered his ancestor in the 1890 Census, where his great great grandfather Jacob Vail was listed as having served with the New York Engineers. “I was so excited to find out that he was an engineer,” said Anderson. “I’ve always had an interest in building things. I wonder if I inherited that from my great great grandpa?”
With that information, Anderson was able to locate Vail in a collection of post Civil War pension files. In those files, Anderson discovered that his ancestor was honorably discharged for injuries sustained in service. He also learned some fascinating things about Jacob Vail’s wife and children.
With the continued help of the library volunteer, Anderson found that the library had microfilms that contained hundreds of original photographs of people and battles scenes from the Civil War. With the name of his ancestor and the company he served in, Anderson was able to locate about a dozen microfilmed copies of authentic civil war photographs that had to do with the 50th New York Engineers. “I couldn’t believe what we found! It was so cool to find pictures of the actual men my great great grandfather worked with. I’ll bet he knew every one of these men by first name. It was amazing to see the kind of work he was doing during that war. I found a great picture of his company building a road along a river. It’s hard to know if he’s one of them because it’s hard to see their faces, but I like to think he’s there with his shovel working alongside the other men in his company,” said Anderson.
In addition to the photographs, Anderson discovered that the Family History Library has a 70 book collection called, The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. This set of books provides detailed reports of each battle fought by both armies. It was from these books that Anderson discovered that his great great grandfather Vail sustained frost bite and internal serious joint injuries when his company was shipped from one battle area to another on a flat bed railroad car. During the trip a snowstorm moved in and severely froze the bodies of several of the unit’s men, including Jacob Vail’s.
By the time Anderson went home, he had an entirely new understanding of his great great grandfather. He was excited at the thought of coming back to the Family History Library another day to see if he can learn more about his namesake. “I’m ready to share what I learned with my school class. I’ve got some great stories about my great great grandfather.” said Anderson. “My classmates are going to be amazed at what I learned about him. I know I am.”