Since the Civil War is in the news, and since I’m really into genealogy, I thought I should take a look at my ancestors who fought in that conflict. I did have one ancestor who was a “train master” for the Union army, but I have never been clear on whether or not he actually enlisted or if he just did that as a job. All of my other ancestors living at that time fought for the Confederacy.
The Confederate States of America (CSA) passed its first conscription act on April 16, 1862. This required all men 18-35 to serve in the military. In September of 1862, the age requirement was raised to 45. In February 1864 the age was raised to 50. There were some exemptions allowed. As a result of these laws, many men served only because they were legally required to do so. “Conscripts accounted for one-fourth to one-third of the Confederate armies east of the Mississippi between April 1864 and early 1865,” according to information provided here. What about the others? Why would they volunteer? A few probably believed in the cause of slavery, but most were simply fighting “northern aggression.” They were defending their homeland. Even so, they did not expect their enlistment to extend beyond a few months. It can be safely assumed that some signed up simply because they needed the money, like many today. The estimated number of Confederate deaths during the Civil War varies, but conservatively, over 100,000 rebel soldiers died. It seems highly unlikely that they died just so they could keep their slaves.
Sgt. George C. Kurtz of Mississippi, according to the 1860 census, was a young husband living with his wife and children in a boarding house. His occupation is listed as “clerk”. In the 1860 slave schedule, his name is not included, which indicates he had no slaves. George enlisted in Company F, 35th Reg’t of the Mississippi Volunteers on June 30, 1862, at Crawfordville, Mississippi. He did not have to serve long because he was killed at Hatchie Bridge in the Battle of Corinth on October 5 , 1862, age 39. Left behind were his widow and three daughters under the age of six. George C. Kurtz was a good husband, a good father, and a good citizen. What kind of legacy does he deserve? Should he be dishonored because he was forced to serve on the wrong side of a war and died before age 40?
Cave Johnson of Beaumont, Texas, was the nephew and namesake of former U.S. Congressman and Postmaster General Cave Johnson of Tennessee. He was also the son of Dr. Henry M. Johnson, the grandson of General Thomas Johnson, and the great grandson of Revolutionary soldier Henry Johnson, an immigrant. Though Cave was a hotel keeper, merchant, and riverboat captain, he also served in his community at various times as sheriff, delegate to political conventions, and civil servant. He was married with several children. Despite his work and busy life, the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule does not include his name; there is no record of his being a slave owner. Nevertheless, he was not a poor man, as one can see by the type of home he had. He served either out of legal requirement or from a sense of civic duty. During the war, Cave Johnson and his friend George O’Brien, a prominent Beaumont public servant, served in Speight’s Battalion. O’Brien’s diary is accessible online and indicates that Cave was sick for much of the war, as were many other soldiers. After the surrender at Appomattox, Cave Johnson was appointed to make sure that freed slaves in Jefferson County were being treated fairly. He died in 1876, about age 52, but I do not know the cause of his death. It seems likely that he never regained his health after the war. His death left my great-grandmother an orphan at the age of two since her mother had also died. What kind of memorial does Cave Johnson deserve? Did he serve his family and community well?
Wiseman McKeown of Washington County, Texas, served in the Confederate Army as a private in Company B (Kirby’s Btn.) of the Texas Volunteers, CSA. He later served in Capt. J. G. Thomas’ Company of Waul’s Legion of Texas Volunteers. He was legally required to serve since he was already 18. If he had not volunteered, he could have been drafted. The Wikipedia article on Texas in the Civil War makes clear that not all Texans were in favor of secession, and that many of those who supported the Union were executed. For this reason, many Union supporters had to flee. Wiseman had no slaves, so why did he serve? Most likely, he simply had nowhere to go since his extended family was living in Alabama. At his age, he probably felt he had no choice but to sign up. The record of his service is indicated on his tombstone. Wiseman signed his amnesty oath in Brenham, Texas on December 11, 1865. He later married and had three children, two of whom were teachers. Does Wiseman deserve to be remembered as an honorable man?
Several of my ancestors lived in Fayette County, Virginia, at the beginning of the war. Fayette County was in the region that became West Virginia in 1863, so some people were for the Union and some were for the Confederacy. Others tried to walk a fine line by remaining neutral. The Confederate soldiers seemed to have more influence, probably due to the proximity to Richmond, the Confederate capital. There is clear evidence of Confederate soldiers forcing young men to serve, even to the point of kidnapping them. Here is an example of those events from a letter written in 1862 to Joseph Hopping by Mrs. Nancy Hunt (from Fayette County Footprints at MyFamily.com): “The Rebs have organized a new company in this county. Young Sam Tyree is Captain and John Halstead is Lieutenant. They call themselves independent. They are in here almost constantly and have done us much damage. They cannot conscript because they do not hold the county but they get all they can to join by persuading and scaring. They take boys 14 to 15 years old. A heap have deserted them, 10 going down to Gauley [Federal headquarters] at one time. This company took Sam Koonts, Jim Hamilton, Lanta Harrow prisoners and sent them to Richmond where I suppose they are now.”
One of those taken was my great-great grandfather, Anderson McVey. Anderson was the great-grandson of Sgt. John McVey, a Scottish immigrant who was with General Washington at Valley Forge. Civil War records from Richmond, Virginia, report an Anderson McVey enlisting at Glade Spring (Company F, 37th Infantry Regiment Virginia) on March 5, 1862, but deserting on April 18, 1862. However, family legend is slightly different; it says that Anderson was captured at age 14, taken away by Confederate troops, and released after several days. Photos indicate that Anderson was a large man, so it is quite possible that as a teenager he looked older than he actually was. In any case, his service in the Civil War was brief. Neither he nor his father was a slave owner. Anderson later fathered 12 children, all of whom grew up to serve their community well.
The Skaggs family lived not far from Anderson McVey. Thomas Skaggs, born in 1808, and his son, Thomas Anderson Skaggs, born in 1842, were both descendants of Revolutionary War patriots. Both enlisted in the Confederate army even though they had no slaves. Thomas was discharged after a year due to his age and disability. His tombstone, above left, shows a Confederate flag, but that picture is from Findagrave.com. I have never personally visited his gravesite and have never owned a Confederate flag. The son, Thomas Anderson Skaggs, enlisted in the 22nd Virginia Infantry at White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, Virginia. He was present on the 10/31/64 roll, but deserted and surrendered to the Union in March 1865. He took an oath of allegiance to the U.S. at Charleston, West Virginia, and was sent north on April 7, 1865, until the war was over. He was 24 years old. Thomas Anderson Skaggs married later that year and eventually had eight children, all of whom were well known and widely respected in Fayette County. How should this father and son be remembered?
Also living in Fayette County, West Virginia, was my great-great grandfather Jeffrey Steele, another soldier in the 22nd Virginia Infantry. That must have been the poor man’s army because he didn’t have any slaves, either. That is obvious after taking a look at his house, below right. Jeffrey was the grandson of Revolutionary War soldier Robert Steele, whose immigrant ancestors were from Scotland. Jeffrey had the misfortune of being caught by Union soldiers very near his own home. Notes from 22nd Virginia Infantry, by Terry Lowry, tell how he was arrested and taken prisoner by Union forces on April 24, 1862, in Fayette County. He was sent to Wheeling to Atheneum Prison, and from Wheeling to Camp Chase, Ohio. He was at the Wheeling facility for only four days. On August 25, 1862, he was sent from Camp Chase to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be exchanged. He was sent on board the steamer Jno. H. Doan on Sept. 11, 1862, with over 1000 other prisoners. He was finally exchanged at Akken’s Landing on November 10, 1862. He had been arrested by the 47th Ohio Regiment and charged with being in arms in U.S. territory and aiding and abetting the enemy, “evidence on hand” (probably food). Also, the following information is included: “First settler on Rich Creek (Romont) Fayette County . . . around 1860. Built first school house at Rich Creek. Taught school in his house at Romont.” Jeffrey Steele is also mentioned in Panorama of Fayette County, by John Cavalier, in the chapter “Rich Creek,” by A. J. Legg, (p. 385) as a trustee of the Rich Creek School. This is a man who raised six fine sons and a daughter, who also raised fine children, including several school administrators. How should Jeffrey be remembered?
Then, as now, men were often victims of circumstances and of the times in which they lived. Nothing about their lives was unusually commendable or abhorrent. They were just men, living ordinary lives, trying to take care of their families and be responsible citizens in their communities, but they should not be forgotten. Despite being on the wrong side of the war, they deserve to be honored, both for their service and for the lives they lived.
I do not want to give the impression that no one in my family was ever a slave owner. Some were, particularly from 1620 to 1850. However, none of those who were fighting for the Confederacy owned slaves.
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