Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ghosts of Our Past: The Surprises of Family History

This is Antietam Creek. The photo is from a post I wrote in 2013 about a storytelling trip to several places, including the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. We stopped  briefly to visit a few sites on the Antietam Civil War battlefield which was not too far away in Maryland. At the time it was just an interesting historical location, although the description of this creek running red with blood during the battle chilled my own blood. It was horrible to imagine. I wanted to stay and wander here, to think about the men and the lives lost, but we had places we needed to be so we drove on.

Battle for Antietam bridge, from Wikipedia
Then this summer I learned from my sister Judy, who has been hard at work on our family genealogy and history, that one of our ancestors died at Antietam, and that his blood, along with that of hundreds of other soldiers, ran down this creek when he was killed at the terrible fight at the bridge. Until she found the records in her searches, I had no idea that we had a family connection to this place.


The bridge today is calm and peaceful, yet stories abound of ghosts and hauntings there. It's not hard to understand why. Here is one tale of events at the bridge, from the website Military Ghosts:

"Those who have spent time at the area known as Burnside Bridge on the battlefield, especially those park rangers and Civil War re-enactors who have been at the location after dark, say that there are strange things going on there as well. Historians and experts report that the fighting which took place here in 1862 left a number of fallen soldiers behind and many of them were hastily buried in unknown locations near the bridge. Could these restless souls be haunting the area? Visitors to the bridge at night have reported visions of blue balls of light moving about in the darkness and the sound of a phantom drum that beats out a cadence and then fades away."

The relation who lost his life is a distant one, the son of a great-great--great uncle, but he comes to life in letters that were preserved and posted on Ancestry.com. His allegiance is clear:


If you can read his writing, he congratulates his mother on getting married again :"Did not think that I was A goent to have another Dadey." It is heart-breaking to read this, and to know this young man never got to fulfill his own desire to be married.

Another surprise turned up by my sister in her research (thanking the stars for a sister who is like a terrier dog in digging up--and verifying--these records!) was that our great-great-grandfather Dominick Connelly was a prisoner at Andersonville prison in southern Georgia. (Dominick was a cousin of George Washington Connelly, the one who died at Antietam):



Dominick was one of the fortunate ones; he survived when almost 13,000 other prisoners there did not. Possibly the fact that Dominick had dysentery and was confined to hospital for much of that time actually saved his life.


Dominick was young when he enlisted, about 16; he got sick and was sent home, re-enlisted and was captured and sent to Andersonville, where he was one of a prisoner exchange just before the war ended. He was a musician--a drummer, according to the records--so why on earth he was worth capturing is beyond me.

One hundred and fifty years later my sister Theresa and I found his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. (You can read about our trip here.

Another story pulled together from photos, documents and memories has been developed by my cousin Julie in England. We knew our English grandfather was killed when he was hit by a car in 1930, but beyond that we knew little about him. Then another English cousin sent me a copy of a poem that he believed my grandfather, Ernest Thomas Hagger had written when he traveled to Canada as a young man.

Wait. My grandfather went to Canada? Why? When? What for? Questions piled up; I went back to my old photos and posted one of Ernest on our family Facebook page.

Ernest Thomas Hagger, date unknown
That started a flood of information as cousin Julie shared what she knew and asked her mother, my 96-year-old Aunt Grace, what she remembered of her father. Bits and pieces came together into a story of adventure, a young man seeking his fortune in the frontier of northwestern Canada--and also a tale of young love, as he gave up his dream to return to England because his betrothed (my Granny) was not allowed to join him in the Canadian wilderness. We learned much about Ernest (or Thomas as I have always thought of him), of his practical planning, his care for his family, his advancement from farm laborer to farm manager, his foresight in buying a life insurance policy at a young age. He came to life, fully three-dimensional, this man we never had the chance to meet.


I am glad that I got to visit his grave when I was in England in 2013; a circle, in a way, completed.

When I was younger I never thought much about our family history. I never thought that we might have had relatives in the Civil War; I never realized that my great-great-great-grandparents lived at 3254 O Street NW in Georgetown, Washington DC, and that they must have been in an uproar when Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater on 10th Street NW, just a few short miles away. Just like the story of my granny in England and her first husband, these old family stories would have been lost had not people like my sister Judy and my cousin Julie got interested and began asking questions, searching records and looking for documents and related history.

If you've been wondering about your family, start looking now, especially if you have older relatives who might remember names and places, or have old letters and photos that will help you in your search. We almost left it too late, and so much would have been lost. 

2 comments:

Steve Ferendo said...

A great reminder to save and treasure family history.

Rowan said...

Family history is endlessly fascinating isn't it?. I've been researching for over 25 years now though not done too much in the last couple of years. I plan to get back to it this Autumn and winter. It must be great to have those connections with the Civil War and to have visited the scene of your family members' death - sad too.

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