I wrote about my GG grandfather – Levi Jesse Bryant and his service with the Wisconsin 3rd Volunteers during the American Civil War on my first blog – Butternut and Blue Too. He enlisted in Wisconsin at the beginning of the War on May 1, 1861 and mustered out on August 9, 1863 because of wounds he received at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863. His left arm was amputated just below the shoulder, which put an end to his fighting days. Instead of returning to Wisconsin, he worked for the War Department in Washington DC. When he died in 1920 he was described as one of Washington D.C.’s oldest residents.
I had a little extra time on my trip from Baltimore to Richmond yesterday so I stopped at the National Park Service Visitors Center at Chancellorsville just about 7 miles west of Interstate 95 on State Route 3. The website advertised a walking tour where Stonewall Jackson was wounded so I was eager to take the tour.
It was my lucky day because the Park Ranger on duty was Frank O’Reilly, who has studied the battle for years and written about it in great detail. He is a dramatic story-teller who makes history come alive with his captivating, detailed account of events. When I mentioned that one of my ancestors lost an arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Frank was able to show me on the maps of the battlefield exactly where the Wisconsin 3rd was located during each day of the battle. Based on that and what he knew of the battle, he was also able to predict which day and where it is likely that my ancestor was wounded.
Based on the position of his unit, Frank O’Reilly was also able to add details to what I know of my GG grandfather. The Wisconsin 3rd was at the front of the fighting on two of the three days. From their position on May 1st at the beginning of the battle, Frank could tell that they were likely to be a group of highly trained skirmishers who had a lot of experience being in the forefront of battles. They were specifically trained to go out and engage the enemy in skirmishes instead of firing from behind fortified positions. I felt very proud of my ancestor’s bravery and skill and thankful that he survived the War.
Most people who know me find my fascination with cemeteries and Civil War battlefields somewhat strange; a bit “quirky” as one of my friends this weekend put it. To me it makes perfect sense and I don’t understand why all Americans are not fascinated by the Civil War. I do understand that the cost in human lives and suffering that any war creates, is repugnant to many people and they have no interest in “glorifying” war. But to me, the ability for our country to experience that division that cost so many human lives, yet stay together as the United States, says a lot about who we are as a nation.
The ability to combine my love of the Civil War with a detailed understanding of what role each of my ancestors played in it has been an obsession of mine over the past few years. I read everything I can about each of my civil war ancestors’ divisions. I’ve calculated which battles they were at based on their service records. And yesterday I was able to actually walk on the ground where my GG grandfather was wounded. As I looked at a tree on the battlefield, I wondered, “what if Levi Bryant was lying under that tree 152 years ago after he was wounded.”
It may be difficult for people to understand the feelings I have about my civil war ancestors. From my mother’s side of the family I had GG grandfathers, Robert Hugh Hubbard and James A. Powell, who fought for the Confederacy in the VA 44th and the VA 19th. I know when they were taken prisoner and where they were wounded. On my fathers’ side, I have GG grandfathers, Levi Bryant and Herbert Preston, who fought for the Union, the Wisconsin 3rd and the Kentucky 1st and a GGGgrandfather, James McNabb (father of Herbert Preston’s wife Annie McNabb), who moved from Baltimore to Washington DC when the Civil War began because of his loyalty to the Union. He left behind a successful career at a carpenter in pro-Confederate Baltimore to work for Union General Stoneman building barracks and stables for the Union army in SE Washington DC.
I’m proud of my ancestors who felt strongly enough about the Union to uproot their life in Baltimore and start over in DC. Despite living the final 35 years of his life in DC, James McNabb is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in the center of Baltimore Maryland, along with his wife and several of their children.
But whether they were my maternal ancestors who were fighting to defend their way of life in the agrarian south or my paternal ancestors fighting to defend the Union – they are both my ancestors fighting for what they believed in. For me, it is important to honor both sides by learning what I can about where they fought and what their lives were like, before, during and after the war.
So I hope over the next few years to take more trips to more battlefields to gain more first-hand experiences like yesterday. No doubt you will read about them here.