Friday, May 31, 2013

Finding Family Connections to the War

Many of you by now have heard about the man who claims a famous Matthew Brady photograph of three Confederate prisoners-of-war at Gettysburg depict his ancestors. His claims, based on oral tradition passed down in his family, simply do not add up to the historical evidence about his ancestors. But the story highlights something interesting about the way we study the Civil War: for many enthusiasts, there is something appealing about finding a personal connection to the war through ancestry. Speaking for myself, I've spent a good amount of time over the years conducting genealogical research to find that connection. For the most part, I've been frustrated more often than not.

With my easiest-to-trace, direct ancestors, my searches all failed. At various times I thought I had located a direct Civil War ancestor, only to learn through further research into compiled service records and census data that the individual in question was not who I thought. Failing through the direct route, I branched my search out to maternal lines in the family, often much more difficult to trace. I found some interesting though distant connections. I grew up in Kinderhook, New York, and have Dutch ancestry that traces back to the 1600s in the village. Through that I am related to President Martin Van Buren, and also to Brigadier General James Van Alen, who served on Hooker's staff at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Through some further research I discovered connections to the Dudley family of New Haven, Connecticut, a line which also connects to William Wade Dudley, who served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 19th Indiana. At Gettysburg Dudley was severely wounded and had to have his right leg amputated. These connections are all very distant, and my search continued for something more direct.

Today, I uncovered the closest link yet. As I began to branch out once again exploring the maternal lines of my family's genealogy, I began to look into the Totten family. Phebe Jane Totten was my great-great-great grandmother. She was born in 1847, and married William A. Light. Phebe's parents were Gilbert and Abigail Totten. A number of years ago, my grandfather gave me a photocopy of a handwritten family record of births. I am not sure how he came to own the photocopy, but the original was evidently a formal page probably from the inside of a family bible. The photocopy is front and back, each page of the record featured a fancy border and a printed heading that reads:
Bring Up Your Children in the Admonition of the Lord.
Underneath this, one side lists births in the Light family, from Henry G. Light born in 1794, down to my grandfather, born in 1927. The handwriting remains the same through thirteen entries, right up through Isabella Light in 1874. Several other handwriting styles complete the last six entries. On the reverse side, there are only ten entries, all in the same hand as the first thirteen Light entries, listing out births in the Totten Family back to Gilbert Totten, Phebe's father, born in 1812.

Today, my eye was drawn to two of Phebe's brothers, Starr V. Totten, born July 9th 1843, and Harrison Totten, born September 15th, 1845 or 1846 (the last number is difficult to make out). I decided to do some digging, and I found that in October of 1861, a Starr V. Totten and a Harrison Totten enlisted in Company A of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. The New York Civil War Muster Roll abstracts list both men as having been born in Bedford, New York - the same area that I know both the Totten and Light family lived at the time. Harrison enlisted first, on October 7th, followed by Starr about a week later.They served through the duration of the war, Starr as a private, Harrison rising to the rank of First Sergeant. Company A was stationed in the defenses of Washington until the Spring of 1864, when it joined the Army of the Potomac, serving in a variety of capacities before finally settling in as infantry in the 2nd Corps. Starr was wounded on April 2nd, 1865 in the final engagements around Petersburg.

An interesting note is that it appears that Harrison Totten lied about his age to get into the army. The enlistment records list both Tottens as 18-year-olds when they signed up. While this would be correct for Starr, both the family birth record and the 1850 Census indicate that Harrison was born in 1844 at the earliest, and more likely 1845, which would have made him 16 in October of 1861. I will need to do some more research, and get a hold of compiled military service records. This side project sucked me in for quite a few hours this evening, both in browsing records and reading the regimental history of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, which contains images of both Tottens.

What are your personal connections to the Civil War, and why do you think people spend so much time tracking them down?

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