Military History Monday: Finding Your Family Heroes

GGBanks

Lately I’ve been working with clients who have asked me to find a Revolutionary War ancestor so they can join either Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).  It gives me a great sense of pleasure when I can finally inform them, yes, you have a direct-line ancestor who served in some capacity in America’s struggle for independence.  Immediately a smile of joy and pride spreads across their face and they say, “really?”.

I have also had people who tell me they’re not sure they want to know more about their family history, implying it might be less than stellar.  I can assure them, however, that if you keep looking you’ll more often than not find something redemptive.  A case in point was one friend whose family were alcoholics and her family, neither her father or mother’s side, would talk about their history.  What a shame that was!

While her father, grandfather and possibly great grandfather may have struggled with alcohol, her great-great grandfather was a minister who lived in a part of New York during a revolutionary period in American religious history where the likes of Charles Finney faithfully preached the Gospel in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps her great-great grandfather had been converted by Finney or another evangelist of the time.

The area in New York which encompassed several counties of central and western New York came to be known as “The Burned Over District” or “burnt district”, as Finney called it in his 1876 autobiography.  In his opinion the area had been so over-evangelized and there was no longer any “fuel” to “burn” – “fuel” referring to the unconverted and “burn” to convert.

I’m currently reading a book (which I will review soon) called Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal.  A great deal of the book is spent not only on the massive undertaking in the early years of the 1800’s to build the Erie Canal, but also widespread religious fervor that spawned revivalists like Finney and provided the “seeds” of several religious movements.  Among those movements were Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints or Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Shakers, spiritualism, and one prominent utopian community called the Oneida Society.  One of the earliest series I wrote for Digging History was entitled “Heaven on Earth:  American Utopian Experiments”.  In case you missed them, use the search box in the right-hand column and type “Utopian”.

A recent client (Joyce) has asked me to find a Revolutionary War ancestor.  My first attempts were less than fruitful, finding only one direct line ancestor who had been forced to serve as punishment for aiding and abetting a deserter.  That one may not have made the cut for DAR, however.  Still, I kept searching and finally found one who will fit the bill nicely it appears – an officer (Ensign) who was both a spy and a scout during the war.

She had also mentioned that her husband (Gordon) was interested in his family history so I began his research as well.  It appeared at first that it would be a bit more challenging to find a Revolutionary War ancestor since his most well-known ancestor, great grandfather James S. “Cashup” Davis, immigrated to America in the 1800’s (born in England in 1815).  By the way, “Cashup Davis” as he was widely known, was quite a character — so much so, I will be including his story in my first book which focuses on headlines of the Victorian Era and the stories behind them.  Gordon’s mother’s family were Norwegian immigrants so that wouldn’t produce any early American patriots either.

While you might be able to take the surname you’re born with and trace it back and find a Revolutionary War ancestor with the same surname, it doesn’t always happen that way.  In the case of my family history, I think I probably have a Hall Revolutionary War ancestor – that is if I could bust down a brick wall or two!  Should I decide one day to join DAR I can, however, do so through my mother’s family in the person of Josiah Earp.  A variation of that surname belonged to my grandmother, Okle Emma Erp.  I wrote a bit of family history in the early days of Digging History about my third cousin, thrice-removed: Wyatt Earp (and why his Kentucky kin changed the spelling of their names from Earp to Erp).

While finding these two clients’ Revolutionary War ancestors is proving a challenge, I came across some heroes from the Civil War.  I wrote about one a couple of weeks ago, John Whitehead, the father of John Elam Whitehead.  I have since been privileged to comb through Joyce’s family photographs and memorabilia and found an original handwritten letter from John Whitehead to his wife Elizabeth and son John Elam while serving on the front lines of the Union Army in Virginia.

The letter provides a unique glimpse of a Union soldier’s life.  John began his letter by stating there was little news and he was only writing to comply with his wife’s wishes that he correspond with her from time to time.  The fall weather was producing warm days and cool nights and a constant vigil was kept by both sides day and night.  So much of the war was spent waiting, however, and John apparently found time to ruminate on politics.

What he saw disturbed him greatly as he observed those who appeared not to be fighting for their country, but rather to ingratiate themselves – “Maney Selfish and Voide of principals of anny good but to fraud the government and there Country.”  He plainly stated that many on the Union side were no better than “Old Jef Davis” himself!

He apologized later for taking up space in the letter with politics, noting he could have filled the entire letter with commentary.  To John, possibly a fairly recent immigrant to America, his heart and soul was behind the Union and his president: “I will say so far that I am for the Union and Old Abe with strong faith that he will be our next President.”  As any soldier would be, John longed for the day when he could return to his home and family.  The letter appears to have been written on October 22, 1861.  Three years and five days later, October 27, 1864, John Whitehead was killed near Petersburg, Virginia in the Battle of Boydton Plank Road (or Hatcher’s Run).

In regards to ancestors who served in the military I was pleasantly surprised to find another hero of the Civil War – Gordon’s great-grandfather by the name of George Gordon Banks.  As it turned out, however, George did not fight one battle during the war but would be considered a hero nonetheless.  His was a very special assignment.

George was born on October 21, 1842 near Cecil, Ohio (Paulding County) to parents Thomas Clinton and Augusta Caroline (Gordon) Banks.  At the age of twenty-one he enlisted in December of 1863 and remained a member of the Seventh Independent Company, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry or more well-known as the Union Light Guard.

David Tod, governor of Ohio, had been on a visit to Washington, D.C. and had a conversation with War Secretary Edwin Stanton.  Stanton, like many who served in the federal government, were concerned for President Abraham Lincoln’s safety.  Lincoln had a habit of riding through the streets of the city on a daily basis, apparently with little thought of his own safety.   Rumors of his possible abduction abounded.

Hearing Stanton’s deep concern, Governor Tod agreed to return to Ohio and hand-pick a company of men whose express purpose would be to serve as an elite guard for the president.  Tod was looking for special men, preferably tall (over six feet, perhaps to measure up to President Lincoln’s own height) who had already served in the military.  Sixty-four counties responded to the call and well over half of the men were indeed over six feet tall.  The elite company of 108 would be commanded by Captain George A. Bennett and George Banks was the one chosen from Paulding County.

The guard was quickly assembled, uniformed and on its way to Washington.  However, the soldiers weren’t informed of their special assignment until arrival.  Each man was issued a black horse of prodigious pedigree.  It is noteworthy to mention these horses were of such a fine breeding as to be sold for almost four hundred dollars each when the company was disbanded in 1865.

The primary duty of the Union Light Guard, well before the days of the Secret Service, was to attend to the personal protection of President Abraham Lincoln on his rides and walks around the city and beyond to his summer residence at the Old Soldiers Home north of Washington.  Anywhere he went around the capitol the guard was tasked to accompany him.  Still, Lincoln, seemingly unconcerned for his own safety, sometimes managed to elude them.

At one point Stanton and General Auger received word that an attempt would be made on Lincoln, and for six weeks, night and day, someone serving in the Light Guard was kept in the saddle ready to protect their president.  On that fateful night in April of 1865, President Lincoln, perhaps thinking with the war’s end he would be perfectly safe, refused to allow any member of the Guard to accompany him to Ford’s Theater.

Years later, George Banks would tell his children and grandchildren how he carried the first message to the War Department informing them of Lincoln’s assassination.  The Union Light Guard attended the funeral and marched behind the coffin.  Upon arrival at the Capitol rotunda the Guard surrounded the coffin as one its last duties to President Lincoln and his family.  Until disbanded on September 9, 1865 the company also served to protect President Andrew Johnson.

George returned home to Ohio and married Martha Champion Jackson in 1875.  Like many Civil War veterans who had been encouraged to head west and homestead in Missouri and Kansas, George and Martha went to Kansas in a covered wagon.  Life on the prairies of Kansas and living in a one-room sod house proved less than desirable, as was the land and prospects for profitable farming operations.  George and Martha eventually moved back to Ohio where they remained the rest of their lives.

For several years members of the elite guard unit would meet to reminisce about their service.  In 1919 only ten men attended that year’s reunion and reportedly, “the Great Emancipator ‘came back’ in spirit” with fond remembrances: “Do you remember the time he bolted over the six-foot fence to help save the White House barn the night it burned?”  “He was the only man I ever saw who could ride a trotting horse and wear a plug hat at the same time.”1

All had served honorably, yet at times felt their contributions to the war effort would have been better served at the front.  One anecdote was provided in a short book written by Robert McBride, entitled Lincoln’s Body Guard.  McBride related how the president was speaking with some of the boys while they were with him at the Soldiers Home and expressing their desire to fight at the front instead:

“You boys remind me,” said Lincoln, “of a farmer friend in Illinois who said he could never understand why the Lord put the curl in a pig’s tail.  It never seemed to him to be either useful or ornamental, but he reckoned the Almighty knew what he was doing when he put it there!”2

Regardless of their desires for service at the front lines of combat, the Union Light Guard must have been devastated when told of the president’s assassination.  Had they been with him history might have been different in many ways, but as they would reminisce for years to come, President Abraham Lincoln appeared oblivious to danger and unaware of the meaning of the word fear.

George Gordon Banks died on February 17, 1923.  On the application for George’s military headstone is a notation: “Lincoln’s Private Body Guard”.  I have a strong suspicion that Gordon was named for his great grandfather given George’s middle name and the maiden name of George’s mother being the same.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this long story.  With so much of my time being spent of late on research instead of writing here at Digging History, I thought I’d chronicle some of my “adventures in research” in hopes it would be inspirational to someone looking for their own family heroes.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

 © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Footnotes:

  1. Circleville Daily Union Herald, 10 Sep 1919, p. 5
  2. Robert W. McBride, Lincoln’s Body Guard, The Union Light Guard of Ohio; With Some Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis, Indiana, 1911), 34.

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