A Civil War Captain in My Family Tree?! Share Your Surprises

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about his genealogy surprise: he was researching a branch of his family tree and discovered a Confederate captain from the Civil War!

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on our genealogy is the surprises we discover. If you are like me, you have had your fair share of finding something in your family history research that you either weren’t looking for at the time, or were shocked at what you actually did find. Recently that happened to me while I was working on our daughter-in-law’s family branch. Here is that story. And after telling you about my latest genealogy adventure, I’d love to hear about your biggest genealogy surprises!

I had been at work on our daughter-in-law’s family tree for some time when I got a bit stumped on one of the female members back in the early 1800s. The family was from southern Ohio and their daughter Mary A. Dillon seemed to have disappeared on me. That is to say, she disappeared until a colleague happened to mention that he thought she might have married a fellow by the name of Scovell. A quick check with the Lawrence County, Ohio, Genealogy Society and I confirmed the marriage of our Mary A. Dillon to one William Tiley Scovell. Once I had a place and a name I was off to the newspaper archives and other databases of GenealogyBank.com to see what else I could find.

Well, the last thing I was expecting to find in my family tree was a Civil War Confederate captain who was so in demand that Southern generals were competing to have his services! Plus, none other than General Robert E. Lee, the top man himself, was deciding where Scovell could best serve the Confederacy.

I’ve long known that we have a Civil War veteran or two in our family tree, but never anyone above the rank of private and certainly no one who was in demand quite like Captain Scovell. A riverboat captain before the war, Scovell evidently was extremely adept at getting ships, men, and cargo up and down—as well as across—rivers.

In my first search I found an 1895 newspaper article explaining that Captain Scovell had just passed away—at that time he was the second-to-last surviving member of the Grivot Rifles of the Fifteenth Louisiana Infantry.

William Scovell obituary, Times-Picayune newspaper article 4 July 1895

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 July 1895, page 11

From this old newspaper article I gained excellent information, leads, and insight into the Civil War career of William T. Scovell and began looking further.

Next I discovered, in GenealogyBank.com’s Historical Documents collection, the Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, 1861-1865, which showed William T. Scovell “taking rank” on June 5, 1862, in Louisiana.

reference to William Scovell in the Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, 1861-1865

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, 1861-1865. Volume II. Serial Set Vol. No. 4611; S.Doc. 234 pt. 2.

Next I found an additional 1895 newspaper article about Scovell.

Liked by Lee and Jackson, Idaho Register newspaper article 18 October 1895

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 18 October 1895, page 2

This historical newspaper article was wonderful since it explained that Captain Scovell’s services were argued over by Generals Stonewall Jackson and Early, with the decision over Scovell’s assignment coming from General Robert E. Lee himself. It also offered the information that Captain Scovell was one of the CSA officers in charge of the infamous burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 30, 1864.

Then I discovered a real bit of genealogy treasure. In a 1922 newspaper I read a “Succession Notice” for “Mrs. Mary A. Dillon, widow of William T. Scovell.”

succession notice for Mary Dillon, New Orleans States newspaper article 8 January 1922

New Orleans States (New Orleans, Louisiana), 8 January 1922, page 35

This historical succession notice was for the probate of the estate of Mary. I have since sent to Louisiana for instructions and information on how I can access this will and estate file since the old news article wonderfully contains the court name, parish, division, date, file number, deceased, attorney, and executor. What an abundance of information in one short article!

photo of the crypt of William T. Scovell and Mary Dillon in Louisiana

Photo: the Louisiana crypt for William T. Scovell, his wife Mary Dillon, and their family. Credit: from the author’s collection.

From almost nothing I am now deeply involved in learning about our family’s Civil War luminary and it brings me back to the question I asked in the beginning of this article.

Tell me…what is the biggest surprise that you have found doing your genealogy and family history?