Editor’s Query: Tell us about an ancestor’s role in the Civil War

Courtesy of Lori Magoon - John Wagner and his son Richard.

German immigrant John Wagner came to the Port of Baltimore in the mid-19th century. There, he married a young German girl, and they had a son, Richard (my great-great-grandfather). Unfortunately, she died when the child was very young.

According to the family story, John, who had a strong musical background, became a bandleader in the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1864, when he was about 8 years old, Richard enlisted in the Army as a member of his father’s band. After a battle that April, a gold-plated sword was cut down and presented to young Richard by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s color bearer as a memento of the boy’s service. Today the sword remains a family treasure.

( Courtesy of Peter Humphrey ) - A cartoon self-portrait of John F. Norton.
  • ( Courtesy of Peter Humphrey ) - A cartoon self-portrait of John F. Norton.
  • ( Courtesy of Peter Humphrey ) - A letter from John F. Norton.
  • ( Courtesy of the Yourman family ) - Henrietta Fass
  • ( Courtesy of the Yourman family ) - Simon Fass

( Courtesy of Peter Humphrey ) - A cartoon self-portrait of John F. Norton.

Five days after the Civil War ended, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre, where John was one of the orchestra leaders. There was an elaborate funeral procession for Lincoln, for which John wrote a funeral march and led the band, while Richard played along.

A few years later, Richard reenlisted in the Army at age 11 as a bandsman, joining his father at Fort Rice in the Dakota territories. After three years of service, he was discharged as a corporal. Richard died in Washington in 1940 at age 83.

— Lori Magoon, Ellicott City

Some people say that religion is the cause of most wars. In the case of my great-great-grandfather Simon Fass, religion saved his life during the Civil War.

Simon, along with his wife, Henrietta, and father-in-law Sinai Jacobusky, served in the Confederate army. Henrietta was a war nurse, prisoner of war and blockade runner, hiding provisions under her hoop skirt. Sinai contracted yellow fever while at home recuperating from a war injury and knew his end was near when, in a mix of Yiddish and English, he announced, “Since my tabak shmekt nicht [I can’t smell my tobacco], I must be sick.”

Simon fared better. His Jewish observance would prove to be his salvation.

On two separate occasions, he was granted leave from battle to celebrate Jewish holidays and returned each time to find that his replacement had been killed.

On another occasion, after Simon’s regiment had set up bivouac north of Charleston, S.C., it came time for his morning prayers. Simon found an isolated spot, donned phylacteries and tallit, and began to pray. He suddenly noticed a Union patrol approaching, with a sergeant in the lead.

Simon grew tense. Flight seemed futile, so he continued with his prayers. The sergeant drew close but, oddly, did nothing. He watched Simon for a moment, then rode off.

While a lesser man would have falsely boasted of having chased away a Union officer, Simon, as the story goes, simply observed, “He must have been Jewish, too.”

— Corinne E. Yourman, Potomac

While on furlough near Richmond, Confederate soldier Elwood Tiller made time to chat with my great-great-aunt Sarah in a field near her home on Brook Road. Their pleasant moment ended abruptly when they saw Union soldiers approaching from a distance. Elwood realized that the enemy had seen him and that he was in imminent danger. With no place to hide and no time to run, he began to panic. Sarah reassured Elwood that everything would be all right if he would just crouch down. Having no other option, he obliged. Sarah stepped beside him, lifted her hoop skirt, dropped it over him and waited.

“Where’s that rebel?” the Yankee officer demanded on his arrival.

“What rebel?” replied Sarah, according to family lore.

“That rebel soldier that was standing here a minute ago!”

“I don’t see any rebels here,” she said calmly.

As the exchange continued, the Union officer realized no gentleman would dare raise a woman’s skirt in public. This was especially true in the presence of his enlisted men. For what seemed like a very long time, Sarah refused to move. All the while, she could feel Elwood shaking and his heart beating against her leg. Eventually the Yankees gave up and left.

Sarah and Elwood married after the war.

— Joel Pollard, Centreville

Years ago my father gave me a box filled with old letters. Some were in pencil; some in pen. Most were legible, though 125 years had left others almost indecipherable. Reading carefully, I discovered my great-great-grandmother’s secret.

Reola Artemesia Thomas was the spirited, independent young daughter of a farmer. David Hunter Wall was the wayward son of a judge. Six months after Florida seceded from the Union, David marched out of Brooksville with Company C of the 3rd Florida Regiment. He was 23; she was 17.

From 1861 to 1864, David and Reola corresponded as the regiment moved around the Southeast. Reola describes her flutters and jealousies as their romance blossomed and offers glimpses into her world in the “Land of Flowers.” David shares snippets of camp life, such as hearing “heavy canninading” outside Vickburg, and reveals his hopes of “future domestic felicity.” By February 1864, David and Reola were secretly betrothed.

Sadly, the marriage was not to be. Early that May, David was taken to the hospital in LaGrange, Ga. On May 30, he died. He was buried in the Soldiers Cemetery.

Forty-three years, two marriages and five children later, Reola’s heart still ached for her “dear Loved one.” In 1907, she wrote to a friend in LaGrange, “The painful circumstance of that sad sad death is yet fresh on my memory.” That Memorial Day, and until Reola died two years later, her friend placed “beautiful Roses” on the “sacred spot.”

— Anne Reynolds, Arlington

During the Civil War, eastern Tennessee was largely pro-Union, to the extent that there was some consideration to its seceding from the rest of the state. Armed forces from both sides crossed back and forth through the area, raiding as they went. My grandmother, Emma Brannan, who married my grandfather, Melancthon Woolsey, was born and raised in Greene County. Emma’s father, Isaac Brannan, was a Unionist, while his neighbor, a Mr. Link, favored the Confederates. Yet the neighbors were fast friends.

The following story was recounted by Emma and reported in the local paper with her obituary: “ ‘When news would come,’ said Mrs. Woolsey, ‘that the rebels were coming, Mr. Link would run and tell his friend, Isaac, who would drive all his cattle into the field of Mr. Link. Then when Isaac would hear that the Yankees were coming, he would hasten to his friend Link with the news, who would drive his cattle into the pasture of Isaac. Thus, two men, differing in political views, joined hands to save property and life during an emergency.’”

— Raymond H. Woolsey, Boonsboro

One of my ancestors (with the 14th New York state militia), the American son of Irish potato famine immigrants, fought at Bull Run and left some interesting souvenirs. When the South seceded, President Lincoln believed the rebellion could be quickly suppressed — he called for three-month volunteers to train and head south to crush it. It takes time to train and arrange an invasion, so this turned out to be a bad idea, because some troops turned around and headed home when their three months were up, dispiriting all those who saw them marching in the wrong direction, back north.

My great-great-great-grandfather John F. Norton signed up in Brooklyn and camped out in Alexandria. Just before the battle, he wrote a letter home with a cartoon self-portrait. As we know, the North got whooped bad, but you wouldn’t know it from the brief note he wrote right after the battle. (“We charged with a yell,” he writes.)

After the defeat, Lincoln immediately changed the enrollment period to three years instead, but Norton had done his time and went home to Brooklyn with one huge battle under his belt. I suppose I should be pretty darn grateful — a three-year hitch might have killed him (and me).

— Peter Humphrey, Rockville

In 1863, free African Americans from Norfolk County, Va., volunteered to fight for the Union. My great-grandfather, Firby Cuffee, was one.

When I began researching my family’s history, I wrote my aunts and uncles asking for family information and stories. Uncle Rowland wrote telling me, among other interesting tidbits, that his grandfather was “an Army man all of his life and an [Indian] fighter.”

This story led me to the National Archives, where I found a wonderful trove of information. I accessed my great-grandfather’s military records, including a 1901 deposition in which Firby attests to having “served during the War of the Rebellion in Company B 1st Cavalry USCT [U.S. Colored Troops], enlisting in October 1863 at Fortress Monroe and being discharged at Santiago, Texas, in March 1866.”

Firby names his commanders and describes engaging in battles between Petersburg and Richmond; his company lost only one man. Firby was sent back to Tidewater to serve guard duty, and after the Civil War, he was shipped to Texas, where he served with the 10th Cavalry — a buffalo soldier unit — and was injured in the Brazos.

My great-grandfather’s name, and those of other volunteers from Norfolk County, is listed on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington.

— Faith Walton McKeithen, Baltimore

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