Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Our Family's Secret Civil War History

My maternal great great grandfather Alfred Abraham Wilson (1847-1929) served in the Civil War. With his hand up to his face like that, doesn't it look like he is about to say:  "Oh my gosh.  There is something I forgot to tell you!"?

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the worst war in America's history:  the Civil War, or, as it is sometimes called, the War Between The States.

In our history, it is not so very long ago.

My father's great grandfather served in the Civil War and was 75 years old when my father was born.  Thus, when my father was born in 1919, he was closer in time to the Civil War than I am now to World War II.

Our family has a curious history in this terrible conflict.

My father was born in Birmingham, Alabama.  His mother was born there, his father was born down the road a piece in Goodwater, Alabama and both of his grandparents were also from Alabama.  All his life he was told his great grandfather Alfred Abraham Wilson, who died and was buried in Alabama, had been a soldier in the Civil War. And that was absolutely true.

In the South, for many years, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and though I don't know this for a fact, it is very possible the family decorated great grandfather Wilson's grave at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, on Decoration Day, with the Confederate Flag (which was not politically incorrect in Alabama at that time because no one had yet told them to be ashamed of their history.) Anyway they would have been wrong to do that, but not for the reason you might think.

That is my grandfather Roy Chapman, in a photo taken during World War II. The note on the back says he's dozing and listening to the Armed Forces Radio, and it may be Sunday because that looks like the funnies on the floor. To his right (photo left), on the table, is that photo of old Alfred.

One day, when my father was a student at Shades-Cahaba High School in Homewood, Alabama (a Birmingham suburb) he was assigned a project on the Civil War, and he wrote what was then called the War Department to find out what unit of the Confederacy his great grandfather had served in.

The War Department wasn't quite so busy in those days and they actually wrote back to the young man and gave him the information he needed.

It made everyone in the Chapman-Wilson clan in Alabama gasp with surprise. You can review the paperwork yourself:

Old Alfred Abraham Wilson's mustering out papers from the Civil War.

Alfred had served in the Union army.  His family may have been living in Alabama when he was a teenager, but he had been born in Baltimore, and when he was nineteen he finally sneaked away to his home state and enlisted. Maryland had stayed in the Union. He was a Boy in Blue.

Luckily for Alfred, he didn't actually have to fire his weapon in anger.  He enlisted in March of 1865 and the war ended in April of that same year.  Since he was in Company B, 13th Regiment of the Maryland Infantry he was destined to be cannon fodder if the war had continued. Instead he was honorably discharged in May, 1865.

He served two months.  He married in Richmond, Virginia, and headed back to Alabama to resume his life.  And he apparently didn't say anything about that brief time he served with the Grand Army of the Republic.  He was a Presbyterian, so he probably didn't lie about it.  He just said nothing at all.

My father told me this story many times in the last year of his life and it always made him cry.  But not with sorrow.  By that time he was ninety years old himself, had served the United States bravely in war and peace.  He was reaching the end of his life in the American West, where the rivalries of old had faded.

"We served in the same army!"  he would say with joy and the tears would flow. Old men are no longer afraid to cry.  And then he would smile: "We both fought for the good old United States."

And thus it was that the Southern branch of my family fought for the North.  As it turns out, the Northern branch balanced the whole thing out. 

But that is a story for another day.

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