Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Are Your Ancestors Keeping Secrets From You?

   Earlier this month I posted - Elusive Civil War Ancestors.  This post will continue to look at William Albert Clark and his Civil War records, or lack of records.

   I like to treat genealogy like a science.  It does have that nice –logy suffix.  Since I’m treating it like a science I tend to create theories about the ancestors that I am studying.  Theories are great to have.  They help focus your research goals and give you a sense of accomplishment whether you prove or disprove them.

   In the case of William Albert Clark, my theory is that he must have served in the Civil War.  William was born in 1840 in West Cambridge (now Arlington) MA.  He and his father ran a harness making company. He was 21 when the war started and after the war ended, he got married.   He married a girl named Emma Read from Jersey City, NJ.  So, either he met her on the way to or from the war front or mail order brides came from New Jersey back then.

   I realize that neither of those two choices may be true.  The idea of William serving in the Civil War and passing through New Jersey where he meets his future wife does support my theory.  All I had to do was to find the proof.

   To date I have been fairly successful at finding the service records of those who served in the Civil War.  I did find William Albert’s draft record in 1863, but I haven’t been able to find any service or pension records.  Maybe it was time for a new theory.  Maybe William Albert was drafted but never served.

   I went to NARA in Waltham and asked where I could find information on war exemptions and it was suggested that I go to Arlington where William lived.  Arlington is about 10 minutes away so it wasn’t a problem.  I visited the Arlington Library and was told that the person I wanted to talk to wouldn’t be in until that afternoon.  I left a message.

   This was all serendipitous because it gave me time to visit the Clark house a mile down Mass Ave.  I wrote about that adventure here - Old Photo Reveals More Clues.  While I was at the old house, I crossed the street to the Fire Department and the adjoining War Memorial Park.  In support of my new theory, I couldn’t find William Albert in the rolls for serving in the War from Arlington.

   Later that afternoon I received a call from a very nice Arlington librarian.   She had gotten my message, done her own research and she told me the records I wanted were at NARA.  I smiled quietly to myself.  Her research did point me to the exact records I needed to ask for - The Civil War Letters of Exemption.  “Oh, by the way, they only have the surnames beginning with C.”  I said that should work out well and thanked her for her help.

   A week later, I visited NARA again to look at the Letters.  Unfortunately, the index should have stated that the surnames were not only limited to the letter C, but even more limited to names beginning with Cu.  Any of you Currys or Currans or Cunninghams out there might be in luck, I wasn’t.

   The folks at NARA suggested more avenues and I requested – Descriptions of Persons Drafted 1863-1864.  This wonderful old ledger listed men who were drafted and later exempted from service.  I found a couple of William Albert’s cohorts from the 1863 draft, but no William.

   This guy was really holding on to his secrets tightly.

   I wonder if there was a stigma associated with not serving.  Not serving didn’t seem to hurt Grover Cleveland or John D. Rockefeller.  They both paid someone to serve for them.  Whatever did happen to William Albert during the war years he didn’t share with his family.  I have read and reread the 100-year-old notes from his daughter-in-law, Mary (Cheney) Clark, and she mentions nothing to support either of my theories.

   The answers look like they will remain elusive for a while longer.

   My lack of success won’t deter me from acting like a scientist and creating new theories.  I know that science will shine a light on all those dark places, like secrets, and illuminate what they are and whether they are false or true.

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