I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend from high school who commutes, on occasion, to Washington DC. We had been talking about getting together and hanging out to catch up. He mentioned that he would be spending a week in DC this past July and asked if I would like to hang out for a week. Of course, being the genealogy hound that I am, I thought of visiting the National Archives to look for original records for my cousin Levi Coffin (Underground Railroad) and a Civil War ancestor, of which we knew nothing about. Chris was very gracious to let me go along so I could “root” while he was working. It was an excellent time catching up and a phenomenal experience uncovering over 90 pages of material for my “illusive” ancestor.
Researching the Civil War Pension records was something I had never had the chance to do before. Despite all the security checks and waiting in line to get to where you need to go, I found the staff at the National Archives to be exceptionally patient and helpful. After you locate your specific records by military unit or pension file number, you must request them to be pulled by a certain time, to which they are delivered to the research room. What I found when I opened the folder was amazing. To know that I was looking at records no living relative in my family had seen since the last document had been added over 116 years ago was emotional and very overwhelming.
My 3rd great grandfather Israel Dodge Miller had enlisted in Company L 45th Indiana Volunteers on September 2, 1862 and again in Company C 11th US Infantry on December 2, 1862. He was wounded at Spotsylvania, Virginia in May of 1865 where his leg was amputated below the knee on the battlefield. After his return home, he married Mary Elizabeth Carman on June 1st, 1865 in Brookville, Franklin County, Indiana. Not much information was known after this other than that I knew he had two daughters. None of the living relatives know what had happened to him or know anything about when or where he died.
In Israel’s pension file I found depositions from his wife Mary, daughter Anna, his son William (who I knew nothing of), his brother William, Mary’s father and brother as well as cousins and neighbors. All of these letters contained unbelievable amounts of unknown information. Mary mentioned that they were engaged for 7 years before they were married in 1865. He was a teacher (as am I) before he enlisted. His daughter was also a teacher at the local school in the town where I live in the 1890’s. Mary mentions about their life together, losing a son who was 8 years old, how the war affected him and that he had trouble keeping things together and often struggled with suffocating fits in his sleep.
I found the letters requesting his pension most interesting. He seemed to be described as unstable and not capable of handling his affairs and deserting his family living with different friends and cousins in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. His wife and brother explain that his father left when he was younger to head West for the Gold Rush and was never heard from again. His mother was admitted to a local institution where she died. Their children were farmed out to friends and family to survive.
Israel’s wife and children seemed to move around to various family members while he wandered. He stayed for a short while at the Dayton Home for Disabled Soldiers, but he left without being discharged. Eventually his family ended up in Fountain City, Indiana where his wife ran the local tollgate to make ends meet raising her three children alone. She lived in the town I currently live and was a weaver for the town. I pass the location of that tollgate every day. I now know more about her life and her struggles as a single mother trying to provide for her family. I can begin to understand the family’s sadness to know that the effects of war had on them losing their father to what was probably post-traumatic stress disorder. We have no photo (at least to date) of Israel, nor any information of his death place or date. The last letter in his pension file is from Belleville, Nevada in 1877. No other correspondence from him exists in our family files or history.
A couple years ago I happened to be looking on eBay for local photos and a cabinet photo labeled “Mary E. Miller, Anna’s mother” was up for bid and I was fortunate to purchase it. She looks very sad and careworn in her photo. Now I understand why. Mary and Israel’s daughter Ella is my 2nd great grandmother. Their family seemed to have more than their share of sadness as Ella’s daughter, Maude, died at an early age leaving my grandfather, Virgil, to be raised by his grandparents. So not only did Ella lose her father to the casualties of his injuries and mental status, she lost a daughter and chose to raise her young grandchildren at the age of fifty-three.
My grandfather was quite the pessimist, always joking in that “glass half full” type of mindset. As I read the letters describing our ancestors struggles, I can see why he would have that frame of mind. I am sure the frustration and sadness the family dealt with would have easily fostered that negative point of view in dealing with life through his great grandmother to his grandmother. Him losing his own mother at the age of 7, not really having his father around after his mother had died would have been a major impact on his life. He also had to deal with losing his 1st wife to cancer losing a lot of his resources to doctor bills and then trying to move on by remarrying my grandmother later. He did his best to make it as a farmer and working night jobs to make ends meet for his family.
I feel completely in awe of how family works. Finding out this information has humbled me and helped me to understand that my grandfather was probably a sad seven-year-old who was the product of five generations of loss, sadness and confusion. To have five generations of losing parents and loved ones to various situations totally impacted my mother and her sister as well as my sister and I. Even though I don’t know all the answers about where Israel died or where he may be buried, I have come to an understanding about his life and the impact it has on my relationships and children. Maybe someday I will be able to figure out the final details, but until then, I am thankful for the records that still exist and can be found if you just keep looking.