Using Historical Newspapers to Research My Civil War Ancestry

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find stories about his Civil War cousin, Captain James Ham, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Five Forks just as the war was drawing to a close.

 Earlier this month (July 1-3) our nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I well recall the awe I felt when, as a youngster, my family and I visited those hallowed grounds during the centennial of the Civil War back in 1963. That experience was the one that sparked my deep interest in American Civil War history, which continues to this day.

As pure luck would have it, while I was enjoying all the recent publicity regarding the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I happened to make the discovery of a cousin in my ancestry, James Ham, who was a veteran of the Civil War.

Gravestone of James Ham - A Civil War Veteran

Photo: gravestone of Captain James Ham in Glen Dyberry Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Credit: Patricia Bittner.

James was born in Launceston, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom. I discovered that after running into trouble with the law for “assaulting an officer in the execution of his duties” and receiving a 12-month sentence, he emigrated from Cornwall. It wasn’t long before I found that he established himself in Wayne County, Pennsylvania.

As I was following his listing from the 1860 U.S. Census, I also came upon the fact that James Ham served in the Civil War. He rose to the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry, in their M Company. It was very enjoyable to find, while searching the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com, an article from an 1889 Maryland newspaper reporting on the dedication of a monument at Gettysburg to “my” Captain Ham’s regiment, with a description of the huge crowds that attended this event.

Pennsylvania Veterans' Day Newspaper Article - Sun 1889

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 12 September 1889, page Supplement 2.

Monument 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Civil War

Photo: Civil War monument at Gettysburg dedicated to the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. Credit: from the author’s collection.

The more I followed my leads, the more I was able to improve my understanding of the life, and unfortunate death, of my Civil War ancestor. It wasn’t long before I came upon the fact that Captain Ham was wounded in Virginia at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and died from those battle wounds on April 5, 1865. Now, as much as I like to think I know a lot about the Civil War, I was not familiar with the Battle of Five Forks—so I turned again to research the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com.

This time there were hundreds of old newspaper articles for me to pick from. My knowledge was really expanded by reading an impressive article from an 1865 Wisconsin newspaper. This was a very detailed account of the battle, and the reporter wrote paragraph after paragraph that put me right in the action of many of the cavalry charges.

Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - Milwaukee Sentinel

Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 7 April 1865, page 1.

Shortly thereafter I found an article in a 1908 Idaho newspaper that would make any genealogist’s and/or historian’s heart jump. This old news article contains a story of family letters, history, a dash of good luck, and perseverance in the discovery of the fate of the battle flag carried for a time by Union General Sheridan during the battle.

Old Battle Flag Sheridan Carried at Five Forks Is Found Newspaper Article - Idaho Statesman

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 23 March 1908, page 4.

Then my attention was captured by an article published in an 1880 New York newspaper which reported that General Sheridan was being called to court in order to explain why he relieved General Warren of his command after the Battle of Five Forks. The subheading really caught my eye: “Eight Days Previous to the Surrender at Appomattox.” I had read the date of death of my ancestor but I had not, until that point, realized that he was killed in action only days before the Civil War ended.

Sheridan Warren Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - NY Herald

New York Herald (New York, New York), 27 October 1880, page 8.

I am now in the second phase of seeking even more information about this Civil War ancestor as I have placed a research request with the Wayne County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society (http://waynehistorypa.org). One of their researchers is hard at work hopefully finding more clues, data, and details about Captain James Ham and his family. Plus after my very first conversation with the researcher, I have been “forced” to place Wayne County, Pennsylvania, on my “Genealogy Must-Visit List” since the researcher casually mentioned to me that the Museum holds dozens of personal letters written from Captain Ham back to his wife and family during the Civil War!

I think I better start packing right now. I figure at least two days reading for sure! Can you imagine what those letters might hold?

Do you have comparable success stories about researching your Civil War ancestor? Tell us about them in the comments section.

4th of July Holiday: A Time for Family Reunions & Genealogy Fun

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott celebrates the Fourth of July holiday by researching old newspaper articles to discover some July 4th reunions celebrated in times past.

I love holidays and I especially love the 4th of July! Fireworks, picnics, and family reunions! What a great combination for all of us, and especially those of us who are genealogy “infected”! All my life July 4th was a time to gather family around and have a wonderful long weekend while celebrating the birth of the United States!

I hope you and your family had fun this past holiday weekend celebrating our great nation and enjoying quality time together.

When I began planning my picnic menu for this year’s 4th of July party (should I go with hamburgers, hot dogs, or brats?) I decided to spend a few moments searching GenealogyBank.com’s historical newspaper archives to see what some of the past July Fourth celebrations were like that “made the papers.”

The first article I found in my search, published in the “Society” column of a 1912 Pennsylvania newspaper, really perked up my interest as a genealogist. The historical news article listed the names of dozens of the reportedly more than 100 family members of three of the oldest families of the county who gathered for their annual 4th of July reunion. Seeing all those persons’ names and hometowns made me wish I were related!

Three Families in July Fourth Reunion, Patriot newspaper article 6 July 1912

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 6 July 1912, page 3

Next, I enjoyed another family reunion article and wished I had ancestors who lived in Mason, Fleming, and/or Lewis counties in Kentucky. This 1912 Kentucky newspaper reported on a nice assortment of many of the “Old Settlers” of the area.

Old Settlers Will Meet July Fourth, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 May 1912

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 May 1912, page 2

I became a bit envious when I read an article from a 1913 Oklahoma newspaper. This piece explained that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had changed his mind and agreed to go to the Gettysburg battlefield and address the Veterans Encampment there. Can you imagine being at Gettysburg and walking amongst Civil War veterans, hearing their first-hand stories? Wow, what a 4th of July that would make for anyone who loves genealogy and history!

Wilson to Visit Gettsyburg Vetson July Fourth, Daily Oklahoman newspaper article 29 June 1913

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), 29 June 1913, page 1

Then I got a good chuckle from an article in an 1875 Ohio newspaper. This enjoyable item recounted the 4th of July festivities surrounding the annual gathering of telegraphers. I enjoyed reading that this group knew “how to have a frolic in a sensible and respectable manner” and sported badges with coded messages. Despite their apparent good manners and fun times, I’d be willing to bet that this is a group that doesn’t meet anymore.

Reunion of the Cleveland, Buffalo, Toledo and Erie Telegraphers, Plain Dealer newspaper article 6 July 1875

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 July 1875, page 4

Of course reading all these wonderful old newspaper articles about 4th of July family reunions and gatherings only made me pine a bit for some of my family reunions in times gone by. The last several decades or so have found us in a cabin in the north woods of Minnesota where we enjoy the holiday, often in its weather extremes. I have great memories ranging from the incredibly HOT 4th of July when the beach sand was so burning we couldn’t walk on it barefoot to get to our clambake fire—all the way to the other extreme of the 4th of July in 1996, when we all watched the fireworks in winter jackets, hats, and mittens after trimming a small, nearby pine tree with Christmas lights to celebrate the cold!

Before wrapping up my Fourth of July reunion research, I took a few more minutes to look in our old family photo albums for some more memories of the holiday. Aside from a whole lot of my really bad photos of fireworks that didn’t quite work out (thank goodness for digital photography now), I did find two photos that really took me back. One is of my dad and mom enjoying the 4th in their favorite place—a swimming pool.

photo of Scott Phillips' parents celebrating July Fourth by a swimming pool

The second photo was from a 1986 4th of July reunion with my in-laws in northern Minnesota.

photo of Scott Phillips celebrating July Fourth with his in-laws in northern Minnesota

Both these family photos bring memories of happy, happy times gone by. I hope you enjoy them; I have included them here as my way of saying: I hope you had a wonderful 4th of July holiday—and Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

By the way—what did you grill this 4th of July? Tell us in the comments.

Abraham Lincoln: The Life of a Legend Infographic

Click the image for the even bigger full-size version of the Lincoln Infographic
Abraham Lincoln Family Tree Genealogy Infographic

Born

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, at Sinking Springs farm in Hodgenville, KY, inside a log cabin.

Family

Parents

Abraham Lincoln’s father was Thomas Lincoln. He was born January 6, 1778, and died January 17, 1851. He was a carpenter, farmer and manual laborer of meager means.

Abe’s mother was Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln. She was born February 5, 1784, and died October 5, 1818. Lincoln was 9 years old when his mother died due to an illness.

Siblings

Lincoln had an older sister and a younger brother. His sister Sarah (Lincoln) Grigsby was born February 10, 1807. She married Aaron Grigsby on August 2, 1826. She was 20 years old when she died January 20, 1828, during childbirth. The two were very close, sharing a deep affection for each another. A friend and brother-in-law to Abe, Nathaniel Grigsby, stated the following about his sister-in-law Sarah:

“She could, like her brother, meet and greet a person with the kindest greeting in the world, make you easy at the touch of a word, an intellectual and intelligent woman.”

Abe’s brother Thomas Lincoln Jr. was born in 1812 and only lived three days before he died.

Stepfamily

Thomas Lincoln remarried on December 2, 1819 to Sarah Bush. She was born December 13, 1788, and died April 12, 1869. Her previous husband, Daniel Johnston, died a couple of years before Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln’s death.

After marrying Thomas, Sarah took care of his children Sarah and Abe. It is said that she was a good mother and treated Sarah and Abe as her own children. She and Abe were reportedly close.

Sarah also brought along three children from her previous marriage to Daniel, and they became Abe’s new stepsiblings: Elizabeth Johnston (13 years old), Matilda Johnston (10), and John Johnston (9). Since Abe and John were close in age they became playmates.

Wife

At the age of 33 Abe married Mary Todd, a bright belle from a wealthy family, on November 4, 1842. It was the first and only marriage for both Mary and Abe. The couple remained married 22 years until Lincoln’s death.

Children

The couple had four sons. The first son was Robert Todd Lincoln. He was born August 1, 1843, and died July 26, 1926, at the ripe old age of 82. He was an American lawyer and served as Secretary of the War Department.

Their second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was born March 10, 1846, and died February 1, 1850, at the age of 3. A week after Eddie’s death, Mary and Abraham wrote a poem (though authorship is sometimes questioned) entitled “Little Eddie.” It was printed in the Illinois State Journal newspaper.

Their third child, William Wallace Lincoln, was born December 21, 1850. He died February 20, 1862, at the age of 11 due to illness. Abe was deeply affected by his death and did not return to work for three weeks.

Thomas Lincoln was Abe and Mary’s youngest son. He was born April 4, 1853, and died July 15, 1871, at the age of 18. He was nicknamed “Tad” by Abe who found Thomas “as wriggly as a tadpole” when he was a baby.

Resided

Kentucky 1809-1816

From 1809-1816 Lincoln lived in Kentucky on two farms. He first resided on Sinking Spring farm where he was born, and later moved a few miles away to Knob Creek.

Indiana 1816-1830

Because of disputed titles to Thomas Lincoln’s Kentucky land, the Lincolns headed north to settle in the wilderness of southern Indiana in December of 1816. Lincoln was 7 upon his arrival in Indiana and would remain there until 1830, well into his early adulthood.

Illinois 1831-1861

In 1831 the Lincolns headed west by ox-cart teams to Illinois. This would be Lincoln’s home for the next 30 years, until 1861. However, he did take an extended leave from 1847-1849, renting out his home in Springfield, IL, while staying in Washington, D.C., to serve his term in Congress.

Washington, D.C. 1847-1849, 1861-1865

In February of 1861, after Lincoln was elected president, he and his family moved into the White House in Washington, D.C.

Occupations

Abraham Lincoln was a man of many jobs. As a young man he ferried people and cargo down rivers on flatboats and steamboats. Later Abe worked as a clerk in general stores, and operated two stores he co-owned with William Franklin Berry. He was also employed as a postmaster and worked many odd jobs, including chopping wood, splitting rails, surveying, and mill working. In 1837 he began his law practice, which he continued for over 20 years.

Political Career

His career in politics began in 1834 when he was elected to the Illinois state legislature. After his initial term he was elected again in 1836, 1838, and 1840. In 1846 he was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Whig and served one term, from 1847 to 1849. On November 6th, 1860, Lincoln was elected as the 16th United States president as a Republican.

Hobbies

Animals

Lincoln had a soft spot for animals of all types, especially cats. When his wife Mary was asked if Abe had a hobby, she replied: “cats.” The Lincolns’ pets included a dog, cats, rabbits and two goats.

Storytelling

Lincoln loved to make people laugh and he was an excellent storyteller. Anyone who met him commented on his steady supply of anecdotes and jokes. His ability to charm and disarm was a key ingredient to his success in politics.

Reading

Lincoln had very limited formal education but he was self-taught and a voracious reader. He was known to walk for miles to borrow books from neighbors. Lincoln’s favorite reads as a boy included Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Aesop’s Fables.

“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”  —Abraham Lincoln

Inventing

Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. president to hold a patent for an invention. It is filed as No. 6,469. He invented a floatation system to lift riverboats that were stuck on sandbars.

Presidential Timeline

The dates below mark some of the most notable milestones during Lincoln’s presidency.

April 12, 1861: Civil War Begins

After the first Confederate shots were fired on Union forces at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, Lincoln declared war on the rebellious states. The bloody conflict between the North and the South lasted until June 2, 1865.

January 1, 1863: Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation marked an important turning point in the Civil War, transforming the Union’s goal from one of preserving the nation’s unity into a fight for human freedom. The proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

November 19, 1863: Gettysburg Address Delivered

On November 19, 1863, just four months after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Newspapers throughout the country carried accounts of the Gettysburg Address and it was widely praised in the North. The speech remains one of the most famous and oft-recited in American history.

November 8, 1864: Re-elected as President

On November 8, 1864, Lincoln won the presidential election by over 400,000 popular votes. He was the first U.S. president to be re-elected since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

April 14, 1865: Assassinated at Ford’s Theatre

Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He was shot in the back of the head while watching the popular comedy Our American Cousin. The assassin was well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be assassinated.

Died

Lincoln died at the age of 56 on April 15, 1865, in the Peterson House at 453 10th Street, NW, Washington, D.C., from Booth’s gunshot to the back of his head.

There is so much more to the story of Abraham Lincoln’s legendary life. Discover the details of Lincoln’s life in over 1 billion historical records at GenealogyBank.com.

Sources

about.usps.com

abrahamlincolnonline.org

americaslibrary.gov

biography.com

hildene.org

history.com

lincoln.lib.niu.edu

memory.loc.gov

millercenter.org

nps.gov

opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

smithsonianmag.com

thoughts.forbes.com

wikipedia.org

Image Credits

BerryLincolnStore.jpg by Amos Oliver Doyle / CC BY-SA 3.0

Abraham Lincoln’s U.S. Patent.jpg by David and Jessie / CC BY 2.0

Gettysburg Address, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division #cw0127p1