Friday, March 3, 2017

Using Facts to Imagine Our Ancestors

Doing genealogy is about satisfying curiosity. It often begins with the purpose of discovering who our direct-line ancestors are, as far back as possible. To the names we try to attach significant dates (birth, marriage, death) and the locations where those events took place. But doing genealogy can be, and should be, so much more than drawing a straight line from one generation to another. Our research should prompt us to ask, "What was this person like?"

Warren McLean
I think of genealogy as an egg hunt, careful detective work, and a game of tag all rolled into one. Genealogy begins with our tracking down as many facts about a life as can be found, not just those three "vital" records mentioned above. Using the facts, we connect the ancestor to other people--family, of course, and friends. We then use our knowledge of history to contextualize those facts and connections. Finally, we employ our knowledge and experience of human behavior to imagine the ancestor's response(s) to events and people. Although we can never know for certain whether or not we've imagined correctly, thoughtful, educated guessing can add dimension to an ancestor, and make her come alive for us.

At the age of 17, my great-grandfather, Warren McLean of White Cottage, enlisted in Co. B of the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. We know from Civil War memoirs and biographies that many boys Warren's age enlisted not just to serve the Union cause, but also to get away from the daily routine of farm life, and have a great adventure.

Warren's son,
Wade Hampton McLean
Military service documents show that Warren had an adventure all right. He was with his regiment at the ferocious Battle of Atlanta, and participated in Sherman's infamous March to the Sea, which then continued up through the Carolinas. His pension file details slogging bootless for days through South Carolina swamps. Warren did his duty, served honorably, and was mustered out with his company as a Corporal on July 11, 1865 at Louisville, Kentucky. He made his way back to White Cottage, married Arena Wilson, fathered 10 children, and supported his family as a potter.

Those are some of the facts of Warren's life. There are some post-war facts, however, that enable me to imagine how Warren felt about war, and because of them, I suspect Great-grandfather didn't like being a soldier, and didn't relish reminiscing with old comrades about the heat of battle or the tedium of camp life. The minutes of the meetings of a local G.A.R. post, for example, show Warren attended just one meeting, but never joined. When he died, his obituary, unlike the obituaries of many who served during the war, didn't mention any military service. Finally, a Muskingum County birth record leads me to believe Great-grandfather not only didn't enjoy soldiering, but disdained the entire war experience. Why else did he name his youngest son after a Confederate general? Unless, of course, he had a very wry sense of humor.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if your great-grandfather knew my great-great uncle. My gr. gr. uncle, James Cherry, grew up in Newton Township (White Cottage) and enlisted in Co. A, 62nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Oct. 1861 and died in Beaufort, SC in Sept. 1863. I wonder now if he wanted to get away from farm life. My grandmother told the story that James was home on leave, was ill, when they came to take him back on duty and his mother begged that he not have to go because he was sick. He had to go though and later died of illness in South Carolina. It has been fascinating to read his widowed mother's long pension application on and get a glimpse into her life.

    Thank you for the story.