History definitely comes to life when we can find it described in the words of eyewitnesses. Often we find biased and boring accounts of the lives of the famous in history books. But once in a while we come across a source that gives us a better idea of how events shaped our nation and the personal lives of our ancestors.
I love this kind of history most, so when the Lincoln Papers were posted to Ancestry last week, I decided to poke around and see what I could find. Although I didnâ€™t expect to find an ancestor in the database, I checked just in case. The collection includes correspondence from ordinary citizens expressing support and opinions. A nice example is a letter from George Sprecher, a postmaster from Ohio,
“As you are now Elected to the Presidency, & are probably out of a job at present, as no man will think of offering you a job for fear you would be above work now, and as I a nice little job of about 500 cords of wood to chop and a lot of rails to make. So I thought I would write you, and See if we could not come to terms and exchange work, on fair terms if You will help me with my job. . .”
It appears that George was seeking to retain his position as postmaster, but I thought the job offer was an interesting tactic.
One of the more moving messages I read came from Delphy Carlin. We often hear the phrase â€œbrother versus brotherâ€ in connection with the Civil War, and as the father of two such brothers, Mr. Carlin wrote to the president,
â€œIn 1814 Mr Neemo, an English born gentleman, but then an American citizen, neighbor of my Father on the Bayou TÃ©che Louisiana had to join the army at New Orleans. Whilst there he received a letter from his Brother, informing him that he was in the British army only a few miles from the City. Mr. Neemo forthwith went to General Jackson, and told him of the circomstance [sic], showed him the letter, and said, “General, I am English born, but am now an American citizen, and I promise you that I will faithfully do my duty, can you not employ me in some way, that I may not come in contact with my Brother, & perhaps kill him.
“Sir my object in relating this anecdote is to illustrate the fact, thatâ€¦I have two sons; one of them Sylvan my oldest aged 28 years is in the Federal army a volunteer in the 1st Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade Co K. and the other James my youngest son unfortunately went to Louisiana a few months before this war commenced, and, before I could extricate him from those mad people he had enlisted in the rebel army, a boy less than 18 years old.
“I assure you that nothing could be more painful, both to my wife & myself. . . .
“Our prayer to you is that you may give him employment as General Jackson, did to Mr. Neemo, so that he may not come in contact in battle with his Brother, and perhaps kill him.â€Â Â Â Â Â Â
President Lincoln promoted Mr. Carlin’s son to Lieutenant.
If your ancestors were in politics at the time, thereâ€™s a chance youâ€™ll find them requesting appointment or suggesting someone for a position. I ran across plenty of correspondence along these lines. Many politicians wrote to President Lincoln. Joseph Medill, who would later go on to become mayor of Chicago was one of them. He offered his thoughts on the Conscription Act, which allowed men to buy their way out of serving in the war for $300. He tells Lincoln,Â
â€œThe copper-heads are gloating over the prospective harvest of votes they will reap against a bill that â€˜puts the rich man’s dirty dollars against a poor man’s lifeâ€™â€
If youâ€™re interested in learning more about how the area in which your ancestor lived was impacted during the Civil War, try searching for location names. Include searches for town or city, county, and also state. Obediah H. Platt wrote to President Lincoln to advise him of the plight of Unionists in Missouri.
Of course the collection also contains historic documents like the Gettysburg Address
and the Emancipation Proclamation, but other gems in the collection reveal the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. One such letter was from S. Shreckengaust of Chillicothe, Ohio, who included with his message,
“one pair of Slippers worked by my Little Daughter as a presant [sic] for you from her.”. . . I often think of you in those trublesome [sic] times and Pray God that he may give you Wisdom and Strength to guide the Ship of State into the harber [sic] of Safty [sic]. . . I am but a poor humble Mechanic and Seek no office But I Love my Country and would Die in its Defence [sic].”
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.