Most Americans can tell you about a family member who served in Vietnam, or Korea or World War II – some can even speak of relatives who fought in World War I (known as The Great War to those old enough to recall it).
But how many people do you know can speak in great detail about the exploits and military experiences of an ancestor who fought in the The Civil War over 150 years ago?
Probably not too many.
And how many can tell you the name of the Military Unit their family member was attached to and the battles they fought in?
Again, probably not too many, but that is okay, because not so long ago I was unaware of my own family’s involvement in the American Civil War.
Recently, my Uncle on my mother’s side of the family passed away, and as part of the division of assets, I received an American flag he had been awarded for his service in the Second World War.
We were thrilled and proud to receive it of course, but we were totally unprepared for what came with it. Or should I say, for what we found inside?
Enclosed with the flag were newspaper clippings. When we first opened the case, we assumed the clippings were simply random ones that were lying around when the flag was being encased, to be used as stuffing or what have you, but to our surprise, they were so much more than that!
Among the various news articles was one written in 1927, 20 years before the flag was put in its display case. It was an article written by the local newspaper to commemorate the 61st wedding anniversary of my Great Aunt and Uncle – two people whom I had never had the pleasure of meeting.
It was a wonderfully in-depth article that chronicled everything from their separate arrival in America to their current (as of 1927) involvement with two important Civil War veterans groups – The Grand Army of the Republic and the Women’s Relief Corps.
The article began by asking my Great Aunt how they’d met. She related how strange and wonderful it was that two people born in Germany traveled half way around the world and met one another in a small town on the American frontier. The year was 1856. “We were destined to be together,” she said.
Their togetherness was interrupted not long after they were married, however, when in April of 1861 the secessionists opened fire on Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
War was declared shortly thereafter, and her new husband – my Great Uncle – loyal to his adopted nation and deeply offended by the institution of slavery, joined the 4th Missouri Cavalry Regiment, more colorfully known as The Fremont Hussars. The unit got the first part of its name from John Fremont, who was promoted to the rank of Major General by Abraham Lincoln in May of 1861 and given command of the Department of the West. One of his missions was to consolidate and organize all of the volunteer units forming in the Western states into official regiments, brigades and corps. The other half of the name derived from the word “Hussar”, which is a word used to describe a member of a Light Cavalry unit, and originated in Europe sometime during the 15th or 16th century. Originally, the Fremont Hussars were part of a larger group known as the Curtis Horse, named for Brigadier General Samuel Curtis, who was appointed by Major General Fremont and given command of the Missouri area. The Curtis Horse was comprised of multiple volunteer units from Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa. Ultimately, the Fremont Hussars were absorbed into what came to be known as the Fifth Iowa Cavalry in June of 1862. Within that Unit, they were Company F.
The soldiers of Company F included approximately 100 men (commonly called a Troop) and consisted of 4 Officers and 8 NCO’s. They were mustered in for a three year enlistment, which, in 1861, was considered more than enough time to destroy the Confederacy and win the war.
The primary role of Company F, and other units like theirs, was to support the foot soldiers. Light Cavalry units were often referred to as the “eyes” of the infantry. Their missions included scouting for good roads, places to ford rivers where no bridge was available, finding areas for the soldiers to bivouac overnight and performing reconnaissance actions to ascertain enemy positions and strength. They were also tasked with disrupting and destroying enemy communication and supply lines. In times of battle, their orders were to protect the flanks from enemy attack, transmit orders from units scattered on the battlefield and to participate in rearguard actions.
As part of this Army they would participate in some of the most important engagements of the war.
The Battle of Fort Donelson, Kentucky/Tennessee border (Feb 11-16, 1862) – the defeat of the Confederates here gave the Union total control of Kentucky and much of Western Tennessee. This battle, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, significantly elevated his reputation as a competent military leader and, when he offered no terms of surrender to the enemy, earned him the nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
The Siege and Occupation of Corinth, Mississippi (April 29 thru May 30, 1862) by capturing Corinth and controlling its two major railroad crossings, the Union forces secured an important foothold in the South and gave them a base from which to conduct operations against Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The Siege and Capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi (May 18 thru Jul 4, 1863) after 40 days of bombardment and starvation, the city capitulated to General Grant and the Union forces, effectively splitting the rebel Confederation in half, giving the Union total control of the Mississippi river.
The Atlanta Campaign (Summer, 1864) – the destruction and subsequent surrender of this major Confederate city to Union forces all but guaranteed the end of the war.
The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee (Nov 30, 1864) – this brutal, pivotal battle, led by Confederate General John Bell Hood, was designed to draw General Sherman away from his March to the Sea and buy much needed time for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to recuperate from the loss of Atlanta. The Battle of Franklin, followed two weeks later by the Battle of Nashville, would be the last major engagements that my Great Uncle and the troops of Company F, 5th Iowa Cavalry, would participate in.
On Aug 11th, 1865, four months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9th, 1865 the members of the 5th Iowa Cavalry, including the Fremont Hussars of Company F, were officially mustered out of the army and free to return to civilian life.
After returning home, my Great Uncle joined the newly formed Grand Army of the Republic in 1866 and received from them a medal commemorating his service. The GAR was a newly formed Veterans Group dedicated to serving the interests of the men who fought for the Union so nobly in the just-ended conflict. The organization was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois, and served Union veterans until the last surviving veteran of the war died in 1956. He was 106 years old.
A little discussed fact about this group is that they gladly accepted African American veterans into their Posts. The men who fought in the Civil War – like most combat veterans – did not care about the color of the skin of the man next to them in battle if they showed courage under fire and performed their duty with Honor. The Grand Army of the Republic worked tirelessly in their effort to help secure Voting Rights for African Americans.
Not long after returning home, my Great Uncle and his bride boarded an “immigrant train” bound for the State of Washington. Immigrant trains were so-called because at that point in American history tens of thousands of emigrants from Europe – Irish, Scottish, German, Dutch, Russians, Poles and Scandinavians – were arriving in the United States and many of them boarded trains bound for the American West where they hoped to make their fortunes or, at the very least, live in Freedom away from the persistent wars and political strife back in their home countries.
After arriving in Washington State, they quickly made themselves a home and started a family. My Great Aunt established a Post of the Women’s Relief Corps in 1883, only four years after they had been incorporated as an auxiliary of the GAR. Still active today, their mission is to promote Patriotism and provide support for American Military Veterans.