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

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