War is ugly. Yet from our earliest accounts of history, mankind has “beat[en] plowshares into swords” (Joel 3:10) and faced down enemies. Even today we have men and women marching under the stars and stripes on foreign soil in an attempt to preserve our way of life. They deserve our prayers and a prominent place in our hearts.
Today is the 241st anniversary of the inception of the United States Marine Corps. Tomorrow is the day America has set aside to honor veterans in every branch of service. It seems a fitting time to share a recent research experience.
I’ve been doing some family-tree research and came upon a grave-site picture that inexplicably moved me to tears. What is it about those simple white stones that bring on so much emotion? I suppose it’s the suffering they represent.
If you notice the death date on the picture, this man did not die in battle, but lived many years afterward, raised a family and hopefully enjoyed peace and happiness. The survivors of America’s War between the States may have suffered more than those who fell quickly on the battlefield. The state of medicine at the time meant that many war wounds would never really heal. Musket balls were often carried inside limbs for a lifetime. Without the aid of antibiotics, infections festered sometimes for years - not to mention the emotional scars of the close combat.
Then there was Reconstruction. Another document I’ve recently run upon records of Confederates’ oath of allegiance. The header on this book reads, “An act to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel States’. An article published by James R. Baker, jr. on Rootsweb explains that there was no standardized oath and that they were administered for varied purposes. At least one ingenious Confederate commander prevailed upon his Union prisoners to pledge never to take up arms against the Confederacy. The ledger records the citizen’s length of time in the state and everyone says 12 months so it appears that was the requirement before you would be permitted to vote.
I also found record of a young man, Preston Stepp, who died in May 1864 as a prisoner at the infamous Andersonville camp. He died of dysentery after being captured at Rogersville, Tennessee in November 1863 - an utterly unromantic victim of one of the Confederacy’s greatest enemies. I believe the 1850 census records a ten year old Preston living in Fentress County, Tennessee with his parents and three siblings. I say “believe” because neither the enlistment nor prison record give any detail beyond the name and regiment. It’s as though the war departments either had no idea there would be casualties or no intention of notifying the next of kin. For research purposes, it seems nearly impossible to know if the record refers to your particular ancestor. In fact, this soldier may have been the twenty year old son or even the fifty year old father who bore the same name.
Preston’s brother William appears to have enlisted with him in Tennessee’s 2nd Infantry Regiment. As I looked at the picture of the nearly thirteen thousand headstones marking Civil War graves in Andersonville National Cemetery, I can’t help but wonder what young William went through in the weeks and months after his brother’s capture.
When would William have learned his brother’s fate? Would he have finished his tour of duty wondering whether Preston lived? Did he return home to Fentress County half expecting him to come wandering home one day?
The 1880 census shows William did return to Fentress County where he married and raised a family of his own, farming as his father had done. Do you suppose he was ever even able to visit the Andersonville gravesite? I doubt it as the three hundred eighty miles surely represented the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps he felt he’d seen enough of Georgia during the war years. Likely there would not have even been a tombstone erected in William’s day.
As I’ve said so many times, I’m left with more questions than answers. But this research causes me to question not just the past but the present as well. The Bible tells us there will be wars and rumors of wars until the final days when at Armageddon good ultimately defeats evil. And we certainly can’t bow to the forces of evil in the name of peace. Still, it seems like anyone contemplating starting a new conflict ought to have make that decision in the center of one of our national cemeteries.