Friday, July 26, 2013

All in the (Civil War) Family

The email caught me flatfooted.

It was from my youngest brother, Scott, who lives in Iowa. He'd done some genealogical research into Albert Clewell, an apparently long-lost relative of ours who'd fought for the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Union Army's 11th Corps during the Civil War.

The 153rd PA was a nine-month regiment who answered President Lincoln's call for 300,000 volunteers in the second half of 1862. Consequently, the regiment fought in two significant battles, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, before being mustered out in late July of 1863.

I could already draw a line of ancestry to brothers William and Sylvester Clewell — they are my great uncles on my mother's side of the family. But I wasn't so sure about Albert. Although I thought there might be a family connection, Albert wasn't a brother to William and Sylvester, even though all three of them served together in Company A of the 153rd. I just wasn't sure. It made me a little uneasy.

This was important to me, since I'd come into possession of some of Albert's memorabilia, including his discharge paper and a postwar Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) kepi. I wanted to be the legitimate caretaker of these items.

But Scott, with help from and his own sweat equity, connected the dots and found out that Albert was indeed a great cousin of ours. Wow. That was exciting.

His email said that William was the son of Thomas who was the son of John, etcetera, etcetera, pretty much proving our lineage to Albert.

Then, at the end of his email, Scott tossed in this final throwaway line: "Additionally, John Bloss, mom's great grandfather, served in the 129th PA, Co. K., from Aug 11, 1862 to April 27, 1863." That was all Scott wrote.

What? WHAT?

I knew there was a Bloss in the family tree, but it never occurred to me that a Bloss could have fought in the Civil War. I guess I was too invested in the Clewells to worry about a Bloss. But Scott had found that out.

So I did some fast checking of my own. The 129th PA, like the 153rd, was also a nine-month regiment. Companies C, F and K were raised in Northampton County (as was the entire 153rd PA) while most of the rest of the regiment came from Schuylkill County.

They were first posted in Washington DC, and then showed up at Antietam — the bloodiest single day in American history — a day after that fearful battle produced a butcher's bill of nearly 23,000 casualties. Or the population of, say, Lexington and Tyro combined.

But on December 13, 1862, the unit found itself at Fredericksburg with orders to assault Marye's Heights.

Oh. My. God.

The 129th was under the command of Col. Jacob Frick, part of the 1st Brigade of Gen. Erastus Tyler. They were a part of Andrew Humphreys' Third Division, which was a part of Dan Butterfield's Fifth Corps, which served under Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division, under the overall command of Ambrose Burnside.

The 129th made the assault late in the day and suffered a sorrowful 139 casualties, with their claim to fame being they got closer to the stone wall at Fredericksburg than nearly anyone else. I don't know how many men were in the regiment to begin with, but I'm guessing somewhere between 500 to 800, since full-strength regiments (of which there were few) usually had 10 companies of 100 men each.

I knew the 129th was also at Chancellorsville in May, before their enlistment ran out, and I was excited at the possibility that I suddenly might have a great-great grandfather, two great uncles and a great cousin on the same battlefield, but that would be asking way too much.

While John Bloss may have survived the massacre, his Company K record shows he was discharged "by special order" on April 27, which would have been a week before Chancellorsville. I don't know what "discharged by special order" means, but I'm pretty sure it's not dishonorable or the result of a court martial. I'm guessing he was probably wounded badly enough at Fredericksburg to be sent home, since his enlistment was almost up anyway. In any event, he was not at Chancellorsville.

All of which gives me pause while I do some reverse engineering. If John had died at Fredericksburg, then he doesn't marry Celinda and there is no daughter Mary Bloss (born 1865), who doesn't marry Albanus Wambold, who then don't have daughter Grace, who doesn't marry Harry and then don't have my mother, Carol, who doesn't have me. John Bloss is a blood relative, not a relative by marriage like the Clewells. As my wife clearly pointed out, because I was too flustered to see it in Scott's email, I have Bloss blood in me.

John, incidentally, lived to be 91 years old (See here).

A friend of mine told me that if I keep researching my Civil War family tree, I might end up finding a general somewhere. I don't know if I can handle that — the enlisted men are amazing enough.

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