So we research our Civil War ancestors to get a better feel for who they were and why they were that way. Probably one of the best resources in getting to know your Civil War ancestor on a personal level is through their Pension Records at the National Archives. A Pension Record contains information like discharge papers, birth records, marriage certificates, eye-witness accounts of battles and injuries, etc. Now I know you’ve heard that before. I’ve listed it as a resource in previous articles. Yeah, yeah, great resource you say, but what about the cost? You’re right there is a cost but stay with me. It just might be worth it.
I started research on James R. Van Meter. I saw his headstone while researching other family members in a local cemetery. That surname is in my family line and I thought he might be a distant uncle. The fact that he died during the Civil War, at only 21 years old sealed the deal. I needed to find out who this guy was.
I found that James was not a distant uncle but a first cousin to my g-g-grandmother. He had a brother that also served and died in the war but James’ end didn’t come on the battlefield, he died at home on furlough, after re-enlistment. More research didn’t turn up additional info and frankly I wasn’t surprised. James never married, had no children and lived only 21 years. Not a lengthy paper trail here. One interesting tidbit I did find was that his mother applied for a pension after his death. Not the norm but I left it at that.
I happened to discuss this situation with Derek Davey, a professional genealogist from Toledo. I highly recommend Derek if you need genealogy research done or need a speaker. His work is excellent.
Derek encouraged me to investigate James’ pension records. If Mom had requested a pension, a file was opened. I waivered but I took the plunge. Never in a million years did I expect the information contained in James’ pension file.
At 69 pages long the file contained the application – Mother’s Declaration of Army Pension from Rachel Milliken, James R. Van Meter’s mother. There were several rejections and reapplications. There was a letter from the local doctor explaining James death from “lung fever”. There was a letter from Lt. McClure who traveled home on furlough with James and verified his illness. There were many letters from James’ mother, one outlining the death of James’ father in 1851, her remarriage in 1859 and how her second husband would not allow James to live with them. She also went on to explain that her second husband was a violent man and would not support her and the children at home. Rachel wrote about divorcing him on these grounds. She spoke of James sending money to her with each military pay and how she depended on it to buy meat, a dress pattern and the children shoes. One time he could only send $1 and she was grateful!
Oh my goodness. I’m all riled up now! Poor James, ill in the service, sending money home to his mother. Rachel trying to eek out an existence for her children at home. The bad, bad second husband! Then I read this heartfelt letter from James’ mother Rachel after yet another pension refusal:
Sir, I have received your note and am much surprised that you have decided against me in regard to my pension — now Sirs, I have four sons that the government claimed and took from me to return home no more and I should have been glad to have that many more to send to fight for our glorious old flag but now they are all gone but oh if they could look up from their soldier’s graves and see the trouble and distress I have now to pass through. I think they would call from them graves to you to give me the relief which they could do if they could return.
Are you kidding me? I knew she had two sons that didn’t make it through the war but four!! Oh Rachel! My heart was racing! What a twist to this story! Who were the other two sons? Lots more research!
Then finally at the end of the file are two letters from James to his mother which she included in her application. In his own hand James writes:
Dear Mother, I take my pen in hand to inform that my health is getting better and I hope these few lines find you well…. I was in the 11 (12?) Ohio last Monday and saw all of the boys but John he was left back at Nashville sick. The rest of the boys was well and hardy and look as fat as Tet(?) pigs! . . . .
He ends his letter . . . . .So no more at present but remain your son until death parts us.
Oh my goodness! Talk about a bonanza! This pension file had it all. Death, estrangement and divorce! Places and events regarding James’ Civil War regiment. I was amazed at all the info it contained and to think I figured a pension file for James didn’t exist. I have enough probable leads to research this family for the next year!
Now I know all pension files don’t contain mountains of fabulous information. Your results may vary! Yet I have not been disappointed in the three Civil War pension files I have requested. I urge you to consider or reconsider getting your Civil War ancestor’s Pension Records from the National Archives. You just may find some heart stopping info like I did. Info that will allow you to shake the dust off your Civil War ancestor, get to know him on a more personal level and really see the person who happened to be a part of one of the most important events in this country’s history!
Good luck in your continued search!