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Thursday, April 9, 2015

When it is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and you discover that your ancestors' unit served at Gettysburg

Bells will be ringing across the nation this afternoon at 3:15 Eastern time as we commemorate the re-union of the United States of America with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ullyses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse 150 years ago today on April 9, 1865.

But bells are ringing for me this morning! I've just made an exciting genealogical discovery: my 3rd-great-grandfather James McGonigal's unit (162nd Regiment, 17th Cavalry) served at the battles of Chancellorsville and ...Gettysburg!

Private Levi F. Hocker of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment (in which my 3rd-great-grandfather served) in uniform with pistol and sword. Image from collection of Library of Congress.

It's a long story, but James McGonigal is on a branch of my Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania Irish family tree that has been more difficult than others for me to trace. Until recently, I have focused on his daughter and grand-daughter and their families, and have still not been successful at finding key documents about their lives.

Because of this difficulty, I had all but ignored the little research I had done on Irish immigrant coal miner James McGonigal and his wife Mary of St. Clair, Pennsylvania, preferring instead to work through the more recent generations until I was satisfied with my conclusions there.

A month ago I delved back into this family and made the discovery that James was indeed a Civil War soldier, serving at the senior age of 43. (Two of his neighbors aged 44 were denied the opportunity to serve due to being "over age". See St. Clair Civil War registry below) .

Civil War registry of the residents of St. Clair, Pennsylvania. James McGonigal (spelled McGonegal) is listed last.

I ordered James McGonigal's pension file from the National Archives in Washington D.C. four weeks ago. It arrived pretty quickly - just a few days ago. I was eager to learn more about this branch of the family, and was very disappointed when I opened the digital file on the NARA CD and found that they had sent me the pension file for the wrong soldier.

Knowing that I would have to wait another month for James' file to arrive, and eager to know more about this man's service as I was thinking of today's 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I did a little digging online this morning and learned the name of and the actions engaged in by James' regiment.

The History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 by Samuel P. Bates tells the details of the activity of the 162nd Regiment, 17th Cavalry. The book speaks glowingly of their efforts during the war, including their four hour resistance of the advance of the Confederate troops into Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 under the command of General John Buford as they awaited aid from additional Union troops. Their efforts were critical to Union success at the Battle of Gettysburg, as they had arrived before the Confederate Army became well organized, and were able to establish a solid presence on much-desired high ground south of the town.

As Cavalry General Alfred Pleasanton later wrote in Conduct of the Civil War, Supplement, Part 2Pleasanton's Report, page 9:
"To the intrepidity, courage and fidelity of General Buford and his brave division, the country and the army owe the field of Gettysburg." - General Pleasanton
It is inspiring to learn more about the valiant efforts of these cavalry men in the face of what would become such a grievous battle and one of the turning points of the Civil War. I look forward to learning more about my ancestor James McGonigal's role in the cavalry during those historic days.

And as the bells ring today throughout the nation - in Appomattox, in Philadelphia (the Liberty Bell), at the Statue of Liberty, and in national parks, cemeteries, battlefields, municipal buildings, schools and churches throughout the nation this afternoon, I'll be ringing my own bells - and thinking of James McGonigal and his brave companions.


Linda Huesca Tully said...

I love surprises like these, especially when they coincide with such monumental anniversaries. How blessed you are to have such a courageous and inspiring ancestor!

Magda said...

James McGonigal and many men in their 40's were brave to take that risk and volunteer in the Civil War. I found someone in my family who was 50. I have no idea how he enlisted. What a great discovery and hope you get the right files.

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

Thanks for your comment, Linda. This was certainly a great surprise on a special day!

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

Thanks for your message, Magda. These older soldiers, though not too old by today's standards, often had more complications than younger troops - such as large families at home without a father to help on the farm or do other labor, not to mention no paychecks coming in from his previous work while he served. It would be interesting to learn how your 50-year-old ancestor got into the war. Did he fudge his age a bit?

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

I'm reposting this comment from Jana Last since I accidentally deleted it by hitting the wrong button. (Oops!)

Thanks very much, Jana, for highlighting this post within your Fab Finds! If you haven't stopped over to Jana's blog, please do so. Great stuff!



I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-10.html

Have a wonderful weekend!

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

For those of you interested in the image of the Civil War registry of St. Clair residents that I shared within this article, you can find these records on Ancestry within their "U.S., Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865". Visit http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=1666 to search the records.

Dana Leeds said...

What a wonderful find, Lisa. And, on such an important day! I wrote late last year about one of my husband's relatives - a confederate soldier - who was present at the surrender at Appoomattox Courthouse. http://theenthusiasticgenealogist.blogspot.com/search?q=appomattox

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

Thanks, Dana, for your comment. I have no Confederate ancestors and had not heard of the list of southern parolees at Appomattox. Great story!


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