I’ve always been a history buff, so it was no surprise that I would take an interest in learning the history of my own family. As a young teenager in the Boy Scouts I earned the genealogy merit badge by tracing my family history, and learned about my family lineage beyond my grandparents. By the time I finished college I could trace both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family back a considerable way. My father’s ancestors settled in Virginia and received land as payment for military service in the Revolutionary War. One ancestor allegedly served with George Washington during the Continental Army’s miserable winter at Valley Forge. My mother’s ancestors settled in Pennsylvania and were composed of German and Swedish immigrants.
A paternal great-grandfather was noteworthy as a railroad engineer, being fortunate to remain employed throughout the Great Depression. A maternal great-grandfather was a coal miner in Pennsylvania, operating the enormous drag lines, while another great-grandfather was a World War I veteran who was “a little strange” even before being gassed in a trench in France. My lineage includes career military officers and enlisted personnel, teachers, accountants, agricultural workers and farmers, engineers, and laborers. There’s even a beer distributor in my family.
While I’ve yet to find any convicted felons or loathsome characters in my lineage, I did receive a surprise about a year ago when my father received an Excel spreadsheet of ancestors from his brother, my Uncle Jeff. When I was eleven years old my father had taken my brother and I to visit Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and see the site of the infamous 1863 battle that is considered the peak of the American Civil War, and we wondered if any ancestors had fought in the battle. We found a grave for a Union soldier who was a possible ancestor but could find no more information. The man had been from Pennsylvania.
The Excel spreadsheet revealed that one of my father’s ancestors had received a State of Virginia military pension, with his wife continuing to receive it after his death. Given the duration of the pension, the years involved, and the fact that the pension was from the State of Virginia, I quickly surmised that the ancestor in question had been a Confederate officer. This was not particularly surprising due to Virginia being a family stronghold and having been a leading state of the Confederate States of America, but it was strange to be related to someone considered to be on the wrong side of a controversial conflict.
I wonder if the man was a slaveowner or sympathized with the more controversial and negative viewpoints and principles of the South. Was he a stereotypical Southern bigot, or a stereotypical Southern gentleman? Both? Neither? Was he simply serving his home state and showing solidarity with friends and neighbors, or did he actively volunteer to fight for the secession of the South? Uncomfortable questions are raised and likely cannot be answered.