22 May 2015

Don't Wait

When my grandparents died, they had thousands of pictures, not just of them and their three daughters, but of their relatives and ancestors.  My aunt who was the executrix of the estate, painstakingly went through them dividing the pictures up between herself and her two sisters.  However at the time, with no one interested in family history, she kept for herself any pictures that lacked duplicates, and where there were duplicates, she kept the ones that had names and dates on the back.

I inherited one of the incomplete sets from my mother.  And eventually got sucked into this hobby we call genealogy.  Seeing my interest, my aunt vowed to get me the complete set of pictures with the names and dates and single copies.  For over ten years she intended.  They were in her storage locker and she would just need to get out there to get them.  I negotiated -- I only need to scan the ones I don't have and copy the names and dates from the others.  I will return them!  Just let me get the names and dates!!  I will pay for the shipping, I will do everything.  For over ten years this went on.  Toward the end she even decided her kids were not interested in them, she will just give them to me because they mean so much to me.

"The end?" Yup.  She contracted a fast moving cancer and was gone quickly.  She never let her kids know her desires with the pictures.  I tactfully pleaded with my cousins.  But it is apparently a loss.

Heartbreaking, so much heartbreak.  Don't make this mistake.  Don't wait.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

21 May 2015

Treasure Chest Thursday: Civil War New Testament

My cousin Tony comes through again.  During the Civil War my 2xg-grandfather (Tony's 1xg-grandfather) George Hall (1845-1908) enlisted in the 26th Illinois Infantry Regiment in 1861 for a three year enlistment.  When that was up he re-enlisted for another three years in the Veterans service.

This was his copy of the New Testament he carried with him during his time of service.  Click on it to enlarge.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

19 May 2015

Passport Application for Marya Catherine (Casattas) Sivatoff, 1893-1970

(Click to Enlarge)
     Marya Catherine Casattas a native of the United States, born in San Francisco California on the 6th of January 1896.  Father Peter Casattas born in Greece, now deceased April 23, 1917, migrated from Greece, resided in the United States for 26 years from 1891 to 1917 in San Francisco, was naturalized in San Francisco.
     Marya has never lived outside the U.S., permanently resides in San Francisco, and works as a singer.  Plans to be gone only six months to Puerto Rico and Santa Domingo, working as a theatrical entertainer.  She will leave the port of New York, aboard the S.S. Caracas on February 19, 1919.  She has never had a passport before.  She swears an oath of allegiance.

Age: 23 years                 Mouth: large                            Stature: 5 feet 3 inches
Chin: round                    Forehead: medium                    Hair: brown
Eyes: Brown                  Complexion: dark                     Nose: Medium
Face: Oval                     Distinguishing marks: none

     Identifying witness Elinor Mary Cronin, resident of San Francisco, has known Marya for five years.  Elinor is also a singer and works on Broadway in New York.
     Marya requests passport sent to her c/o Mr. Odierno, 124 W. 41st St, New York.
     Picture attached

Marya Catherine Casattas was my wife's grand-aunt.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

15 May 2015

What's In a Name?

My second cousin twice removed Levi from Nebraska decided to have our surname tattooed on his back.  His grandmother Orpha Walker told him, "You can't deny that name now."

Building on the work of others and my own, I can trace my surname back eight generations, all confirmed with y-DNA.  I have found heroes and pariahs.  I have found the good and the bad. I have found the practical and the principled.  I have found presidents and felons.  But most of all I have found just average people doing the best they can, most not looking to make a place in history for themselves.

What's in a name?  What's in your name?  What you make of it.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

14 May 2015

Brickwall Comes Down: Gravesite of Henry M. Walker, Sr. (1829-1865), Part 4.

Moving Forward

I had discovered multiple records contemporary to the death of my 2xg-grandfather in 1865 saying he is buried in Chalmette National Cemetery.  The records list him by name, rank, company, and regiment; date of death, original burial site, and new grave location by number and section.  Yet no current records, including those at Chalmette list him by name.

The next day I called Chalmette National Cemetery, now a part of Jean Lafitte National Park, and told the Ranger who answered the phone my predicament and asked for the email address of the party I needed to address.  She politely gave me the email addresses of the cultural anthropologist and the curator.

I gathered my documentation, wrote a long email, attached all the documentation and emailed it.  The next day the anthropologist replied politely, thanking me and informing me the curator would need to see this and she was out of the office for a week.  While I waited I found more documentation the soldiers are at Chalmette, funny how once your questions are answered the floodgates open. I continued to forward copies to the curator.  I emailed the original ranger I talked to on the phone and asked her to run out to the cemetery and look for those graves by number.  She replied those grave numbers don't exist.

After about a week I received a very nice email from the curator, telling me pretty much what I already knew -- the men are not recorded in any contemporary databases.  She agreed with my documentation and asked for the formal bibliography of sources because she had never seen those records, and she required them at Chalmette in her capacity.

Another week passed.  I received the nicest email from the curator.  She researched everything about the regiment, the soldiers, the train accident, etc. into one large file, sending me a copy.  (She even used this blog as a source.)  It was a nice gesture, but for me it was nothing more than a trip down memory lane, for all that she had included, I had already collected and read at sometime over the last decade.

So, what's the delay?

The problem is that at some point during the last century and a half, the graves were all renumbered.  The one hundred and fifty-year old records I found have the original numbering for the graves of these soldiers, which does not match what is currently in use.

The section number is presumed to still be correct.  My ancestors and his comrades from Company A are recorded as having been buried in Section 86.  The curator informed me that of the ninety-six known graves in section 86, forty-six are marked "Unknown."  She is of the opinion I have "identified" some of the "Unknowns."  I am not the first to have done this, it has happened before.  I politely reminded her they were not "unknown" when they were buried there.

Keeping Moving Forward

It has been a little over two weeks now.  I know the wheels of government turn very slow, and am practicing patience.  The nice curator told me she had now started files for all the men so that they will have answers for any future inquiries.

But I have every intention of identifying the grave of my 2xg-grandfather Henry Martin Walker, Sr., and the graves of his comrades.  These are men who gave their lives in service to the national cause and deserve personal recognition and not gravemarkers reading "Unknown."  The location of the graves are identified by the original set of numbers, and on the burial ledger in the possession of the National Archives (NARA).  I am sorry that somehow, someway their records got misplaced along the way.  I wonder how many other "Unknowns" can now be identified with these new old records the curator will have in her possession?  It is now just a matter of the park service doing the painstaking research.

I told the nice curator, "The 33rd Regiment had two nicknames, first the 'Normal Regiment' and second, the 'Brains Regiment.'  Most of the soldiers were from the 'Bloomington-Normal' area of Illinois, thus the 'Normal' nickname.  Normal, Illinois is the location of Illinois State University, where many of the boys were enrolled, thus the 'Brains' nickname."

So far I could not be happier with the treatment I have received from the three ladies (the ranger, the anthropologist, and the curator) I have dealt with at Chalmette.  But I told the nice curator "this might make an interesting story for the local paper down there, the highly respected Bloomington Pantagraph?  And maybe even the local congressman might want to get his hands involved in making right this injustice?"  I will keep it moving.  You can be sure of that.

My dream is to fly down for the new gravemarker dedication if and when it occurs.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

13 May 2015

Brickwall Comes Down: Gravesite of Henry M. Walker, Sr. (1829-1865), Part 3.

Lists and Databases

We need to talk about databases, and for this I will include all lists.  Lots, and lots of databases for the Civil War.  Some are published books, some are digital.  Some are public and some are private.  Some are indexed, some are searchable.  But it seems the one unifying factor of all of them is they are based on another list that went before them!  And as to that, some are updated, some are not.

The big daddy of all these databases for the Civil War is the Soldiers and Sailors Database maintained by the National Park Service and for my 2xg-grandfather Henry Martin Walker, Sr, it was in complete agreement with all the others.  It had him mustered, but not dead or buried.

What I knew was that the nine soldiers of the 33rd Illinois regiment that died in the train accident on March 2nd, 1865 three miles west of Boutte Station, Louisiana were on all the muster rolls of the living before the date of the accident, and after the accident they (except for one previously mentioned whose remains were shipped home) do not appear in any databases of the dead that we researchers routinely turn to for information.

 My idea was to sit down and begin taking apart the various databases to find their pedigrees, tracing the "ancestry" of the databases themselves, hoping to cover all bases at the root.  It would be simple enough to do, they are pregnant with misspellings and misinformation that are continuously shared from one generation of databases to the next.  You can identify which family of information a database belongs to by the misspellings and misinformation it contains.

The "Catacombs" (Well, not really.)

I am a history nut.  I love history, and seemingly can't get enough of it.  When I was in college one of my favorite activities was to go all the way down and back into the "catacombs" of the library where the oldest books were housed.  My eyes would open wide and my heart would come alive to handle and thumb through the centuries old books that for me represented a tangible connection to the past.

I venture that the vast majority of members of Ancestry.Com are not aware that the website too has a "catacombs" of sorts.  I am afraid most users limit themselves to doing perfunctory searches and then sorting through the results, rarely venturing past the home page.  But if you go to the deep recesses of the website via the "card catalog" instead of the search engine, you discover thousands of databases that never appear when doing searches.  And it was here my brickwall "fell down."


As I collected the databases (and lists) I would of course check them for the names of any of the missing soldiers, not just the name of my ancestor. I was adding the Chalmette, Louisiana edition of the Roll of Honor and searched for the sergeant Spillman F. Willis --

(Click to Enlarge.)
"Willis, S.F.......Sergeant..........Co. A ...........33d Illinois......"
Wait.  What?  Double-take.  He is listed?  I flip the page and look for Jerome Wolfe --
"Wolfe, -----......Private............Co. A ...........33d Illinois....."
My heart raced!  I flipped back three pages looking for my ancestor H.M. Walker --

"Walker, W.E....Private...........Co. A ............33d Illinois....."
I blinked and looked again.  The initials are wrong, but it is surely him.  He was the only Walker in Company A.  I sat back in my chair, my eyes got misty, and it felt like my heart stopped.  I had found him.  He is at Chalmette National Cemetery, as I suspected.

Or had I found him?  This was only one document.  I returned to the National Park Service's Soldiers and Sailors database.  No record for W.E. Walker, S.F. Willis, or ----- Wolfe, or any of the other men.  That is very strange!  That is the database that includes all the burials of all the national cemeteries!

Off to the Chalmette National cemetery website to search two of their databases one by name, and one by war.  No hits for any of the men.  Are you serious??  What the heck?!

Research showed that the Rolls of Honor were mostly compiled using the Quartermaster General's burial ledgers, again available in the "catacombs" of Ancestry.Com.

Handwritten in 1868, recording their dis-internment from their original burial site and re-internment at Monument National Cemetery (original name for Chalmette National Cemetery) in New Orleans, three years after their death, we have the following documentation.  Index, listing all eight of the missing soldiers --

(Click to Enlarge)
And the record itself, specifying the actual location of the graves --

Here I had their names, their ranks, company, and regiment; their date of death, the location of their original burial, and the location of their new internment at Chalmette including their grave number and section number.  Once again I returned to the Chalmette website and looked for the men in a third database, listing graves by section, and the men are still not there.

I sat with my mouth agape.  So the handwritten records contemporary to the death of my ancestor and his comrades show them buried, by name (albeit misrecorded for most) and grave number in Chalmette National Cemetery.  But none of the databases contemporary to us one hundred and fifty years later list them by correct name or incorrect.

Were the graves lost?  Were the records lost?  Were graves shared?

Well heck, time to contact Chalmette!

Tomorrow, PART 4, moving forward.

Roll of Honor United States. 1869. Names of soldiers who died in defense of the American Union, interred in the national cemeteries at Memphis, Tennessee, and Chalmette, (near New Orleans) Louisiana. Washington [D.C.]: G.P.O.
Burial Ledgers. The National Cemetery Administration, Washington, D.C. (Original records transferred to NARA: Burial Registers, compiled 1867-2006, documenting the period 1831-2006. ARC ID: 5928352. Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773–2007, Record Group 15. National Archives at Washington, D.C.
Burial Ledgers.  Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Quartermaster General. (09/18/1947–08/01/1962). Burial Registers of Military Post and National Cemeteries, compiled ca. 1862–ca. 1960. ARC ID: 4478151. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985, Record Group 92. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

12 May 2015

Brickwall Comes Down: Gravesite of Henry M. Walker, Sr. (1829-1865), Part 2.

Location.  Location.  Location.

So I needed to identify the location of the accident.  All the reliable sources reported a number between three and four miles "west of Boutte Station."  I looked at many dozens of maps.  I was blessed that since we are dealing with an accident on a railroad, maps contemporary to the accident were plentiful.

(Click to enlarge.)
The reported location would have put the accident somewhere in the vicinity of what is now Paradis, LA.  Now what is interesting is that right around this point there is a canal with a crossing.  The witnesses to the accident said that there were a horse and a mule racing the locomotive on the track, and as they approached "a crossing" they expected the animals to take it, which the mule did and the horse started to, but changed its mind and turned back onto the track instigating the tragedy.  I can easily envision this being the site of the accident, and seeing the animals not wanting to enter the canal veering off.  Further, we are told that as many as six of the men "drowned" under the overturned trains, including my 2xg-grandfather.

In any case this is conjecture.  As of now, having broken through the brickwall, I no longer need to pinpoint the exact location except the desire to put a bow on this story.  So I believe inevitably I will return to finding the exact location.

The "enemy."

One of the most interesting eyewitness accounts by one of the soldiers describing the immediate action following the train accident, came from page 261 of HISTORY of the Thirty-Third Regiment Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry IN THE CIVIL WAR: 22nd AUGUST, 1861. to 7th DECEMBER, 1865 by General Isaac H. Elliott, published in 1902 --

The wounded and killed were removed as fast as recovered to the nearby farm house. There was a veranda on three sides of the house. On this and under the trees the dead and wounded were placed. Dr. Rex asked permission of the occupants of the house to use these and some tables. The request was refused. As a result of the refusal, the piano served as an operating table and the Brussels carpet deadened the sound of the feet of the operators as they moved among the furniture in the parlor.
This mean, heartless antagonism toward the hurt and dying is easy to envision as belonging to someone deeply committed to the Confederate cause.  Would this be, could this be a case of the Union Army burying their dead on their antagonists doorstep?

Feret, Ferret, or Freret?

For reasons of story cohesion I would like to jump ahead a bit here.  I discovered that the men who were killed in the train accident, including my 2xg-grandfather were originally buried on the "F.G. Ferret(sic) Plantation."  In other records this is spelled "Feret" and also "Freret."  I spent weeks putting flesh on this subplot, and am leaving much out of the story. I again returned to contacting local researchers in the New Orleans area, even a PhD anthropologist who wrote a paper on a related matter on a "G.F. Freret."

(Click to enlarge.)
Long story short, I discovered there was a Frederick George Freret who, along with his brother, owned two plantations in the area of Boutte (St. Charles Parish): the Louisa Plantation was east of Boutte and the Anton Plantation was west.  There is some question if the Anton Plantation extended far enough south from the Mississippi River to buttress the railroad tracks anywhere near the site of the accident?  But then again, it might not matter -- the Frerets owned a third piece of property that did.

As for antagonism toward the Union soldiers?  F.G. Freret owned over a hundred slaves, was a sergeant in the Louisiana cavalry, and a prominent citizen of New Orleans.  Following the war, his wife was a leading officer of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and on the committee to erect the Confederate War Memorial in New Orleans.


Just as a reminder, these are the pieces of the puzzle I had and have on the research table right now.  Collecting all these pieces of the story and so many more, looking them over, evaluating them, got me through the brickwall.  I have not completely enjoined these last pieces together yet conclusively, because my goal was breaking the brickwall and finding where my 2xg-grandfather is buried.  But I seriously want to go back and completely put the puzzle together!  One day.  As time allows.

Tomorrow PART 3 -- the wall comes down.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

11 May 2015

Brickwall Comes Down: Gravesite of Henry M. Walker, Sr. (1829-1865), Part 1.

It seems like one of the most basic desires of a family historian is to know where ancestors and relatives are buried.  For research purposes, knowing could potentially open up a treasure trove of information.  However, on a personal level there is something more fundamental -- this is "family."  I may not have ever known them, but this is family!

In this regard, the location for the gravesite of my 2xg-grandfather Henry Martin Walker, Sr. has been the biggest brickwall for me.  As faithful readers of this blog remember, he was killed in a railroad accident outside New Orleans while serving in the Civil War.  I started looking for his gravesite well over ten years ago, and would keep coming back to the search off and on.  I know all the other researchers reading this understand what I am talking about.  You don't just give up when you start running into obstacles.  Often it is to ones benefit to put down your research and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Maybe new data will be made public.  But you don't give up.

I worked hard on it!

I did the fundamental research.  I ordered his service record and the widow's pension file from NARA.  I searched cemeteries, government databases, private databases, federal quartermaster's records.    I searched out newspaper articles from New Orleans, the hometowns of the soldiers, and as far away as New York.  I read all the regimental histories, and the testimonies of the eyewitnesses to the wreck.  I drove down to McLean County Museum and Library (twice!) where the records are kept from Co. C (my ancestor served in Co. A).  I contacted the head archivist at Illinois State University that held the records for the commanding officer of the regiment.  I paid a professional researcher to look through the state archives at the state capital, and in particular the quartermaster's records and journals.  I contacted various researchers in the New Orleans area, and historical societies. I couldn't find my answers anywhere.

Thousands of questions ran through my head?  What about misspellings?  Loss of records?  I read where the body of the sergeant of the Company was rendered "impossible to recognize as human" by the accident.  Had this happened to my 2xg-grandfather too and there was nothing left to bury?  What was the customary procedure for the disposal of the dead by the army during the Civil War?  All these questions and so many more had to be explored and researched.

I tried the F-A-N method (Friends-Associates-Neighbors) by researching my ancestor's comrades who also died.  Maybe the research has already been done on one of them?  No such luck. I started all over and tried tracking them, with one exception (a soldier's whose remains were returned home for burial),  I found all the other eight men killed instantly in the railroad accident were missing just like my 2xg-grandfather, and I found no other researchers descended from the soldiers who were looking for them.

You always learn.

But research is never a no-sum gain endeavor.  In addition to all the information about the crash itself, I did learn some things.  First, in the southern states it was unpredictable where the military would bury their dead, this was especially true toward the beginning of the war.  They might choose where the body lay, or an out of the way spot, or a nearby cemetery was always popular.  Sometimes the soldiers would be punitive and bury their dead om the land of confederate officers or leaders.  One location might be popular enough for soldiers to return to for burying more of their dead, but it was not the norm.  However, by and large there was no uniformity.

Second, after the war was over, the federal government made a concerted effort to reclaim and identify the remains of all their service dead and with few exceptions relocate them to National Cemeteries.  In the south these included national cemeteries at Alexandria, LA., Brownsville, TX, Louisville, KY, New Orleans, LA, Fort Donelson, TN, Jefferson Barracks, MO, Nashville, TN, Salisbury, NC, Shiloh, TN, and Springfield, MO.  The Quartermaster General's office, who was in charge of the process, reviewed records, interviewed living officers and comrades of the deceased, and did the best they could to find and identify the remains.  But frequently men were buried in mass graves and for that reason or another, individual identities could not be made.  Their remains would still be moved to a national cemetery, but they would be buried in a grave marked "unknown."

Sometimes you just get a feeling.

It was 2005.  Hurricane Katrina slams into the gulf coast.  Among the hundreds and hundreds of the descriptions of the devastation that I heard on TV, radio, and social media, one rang out the loudest, "Chalmette National Cemetery, home to thousands of Civil War dead, is under water and receiving damage."  I looked at the pictures.  I felt sure he was there.

Tomorrow, PART 2 -- it is all about location.

Copyright © 2014 by Kevin W. Walker