In researching my family’s history I often find myself in a cemetery. All genealogists and historians love a good cemetery! It was during one of these visits that I found a “stray” soldier who fought in the Civil War. At first I gave him just a casual glance but then I caught his name. It was the same surname as one of my family lines. I knew he wasn’t a direct ancestor but could he be related? He had to be. In reading his tombstone I learned a little something about his life. Here was a 21 year old soldier who died in the war.
You know what really struck me though? The thought that he probably never married. He probably died without children and although his siblings may have remembered him to their children, I’ll bet his memory was never passed on after that. This young man, a soldier who fought to hold his country together during our nation’s darkest hour had probably been forgotten a few short years after his death. My heart went out to this guy. I wanted to learn about him. Tell his story. I didn’t want history or the country he died for to pass him by. So I jotted his name and the dates from his headstone on a piece of paper. My research on a long forgotten soldier, James R. Vanmeter, was about to begin.
I began like any genealogist and looked for James on Ancestry.com but found little. His parents and siblings were listed but not much more than that. I tried a couple of other websites and did find James served with Co. F 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (OVC), but a man who barely spends 21 years on this earth doesn’t leave much of a paper trail, especially in the 1860’s. With such little information I renewed my mission to find all I could about this young military man who gave his last full measure for his country.
Through trial and error and I have to say “dogged-research” I finally found that there was a pension file opened for James. I thought that odd since he was without dependents but there was a pension file all the same. It was his mother, Rachel Millikin who applied for the pension. Now this was something to investigate. His mother had a different last name. She filed for a stipend from the government on James’ military service with the 4th OVC. What’s the story here?
I requested a copy of James R. Van Meter’s Civil War pension file from the National Archives. I worried I might be chasing shadows and would receive nothing valuable in the file yet a few short weeks later the 70+ pages I received were worth every cent I spent.
James R. Van Meter was the middle of five children. He was born in 1843 in Putnam County, Ohio to John and Rachel Stephenson Van Meter. Both families were from the area so they had extensive extended families. Yet these Van Meter’s moved to Lucas County, Ohio before 1850. They stayed in northwest Ohio until the unthinkable happened. John, this little family’s patriarch passed away in 1851. It was a shattering event for Rachel. How would she ever feed and raise her five children? Her circumstances were overwhelming. When Rachel brought her husband’s body back to his family to be buried alongside his parents she stayed. She moved her little brood back to the area where she had grown up. Surely with the help of the Van Meter’s and Stephenson’s she would be able to raise her children. Still it was hard. The older boys worked to bring the family some money. It was difficult to feed and clothe them all, to maintain a home, to keep them together as a family. Rachel was heartbroken. How would she manage? She responded with the only answer she could come up with. She’d marry again.
Rachel married Daniel Millikin in 1859. Daniel was a widower with young children of his own. Their union met their mutual needs. Or so Rachel thought but after a few short months the hell Rachel lived through without John was nothing to the hell of living with Daniel. Her new husband was a drunk. He tended to react violently to her children and with drinking, worked sporadically. It didn’t take many episodes of Daniel’s offensive behavior for Rachel to farm her children out to extended family. Each one went to live with a different relative.
So in 1860 James was living with his Uncle Jim and Aunt Mariah Van Meter. Uncle Jim was his dad’s brother (and my 3x great-grandfather). James was fond of Uncle Jim. He was named after him and he knew Uncle Jim felt the same way. Jim and Mariah Van Meter had a houseful of kids themselves, six in all but opened their door to young James. He worked hard on the farm with his cousins. He missed his brothers and sisters, seeing them occasionally. He tried to see his mama when he could. James saw her a few minutes here or there whenever he could manage it. Yet James was thankful for his life at his uncle’s home. It was quiet and steady not filled with daily worry as life had been when his father passed but unfortunately this peacefulness wouldn’t last. April 12, 1861 brought a lasting change to the country and the Vanmeter’s life.**
**The conclusion to James Vanmeter’s story tomorrow!