Civil War anniversary spurs interest in researching family history, historians say
By Bill Vidonic
Published: Sunday, June 24, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Friday, December 21, 2012
In 2009, Leland E. Peter Floyd sat in a Phoenix airport, poring over letters written by his great-great grandfather, John B. King of New York, a Civil War veteran who died in a Virginia prison hospital.
Floyd, 63, of Sewickley, said on Friday he wants to gather all the documents, papers and other research he has on King and his son, Chester A. King, who also served in the Civil War, and pass that along to the youngest members of his extended family.
“I want to get the young children interested in history again,” said Floyd, a public transportation consultant. “They're going to be studying this in school, and if I can give them a document about the Civil War, wow.”
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in full swing, some historians said they're seeing a resurgence in families researching their history to find relatives who might have served.
“We're getting a lot of people coming in. Some are just complete novices, they haven't done any online work or anywhere else,” said Leslie Simon, archives operations director for the National Archives' Philadelphia office.
Historians also said that people are using the Internet to narrow their searches, so that when they talk to historians, they're more specific on what they're looking for, such as their ancestor's battalion or regiment, instead of starting from scratch.
“People don't need us as much anymore,” said Michael Kraus, curator of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. “Sometimes they need us to help understand what it means ... where (the soldier) fit in the grand scheme of the war.” Mike Litterst, of the National Park Service, said that individual parks, like Gettysburg, are getting fewer research requests, and the organization believes that's because more people are researching online.
Cathy Byrne, a New Kensington native, used Ancestry.com and Find A Grave for research on her great-great grandfather, Union cavalryman Joseph Charlton, who became one of the first members of Pittsburgh's fire department.
On Saturday, an honor guard of Pittsburgh firefighters and Civil War re-enactors stood before Charlton's grave, which got a new tombstone in South Side Cemetery in Carrick, while nearly three dozen of Charlton's distant relatives gathered to remember him.
“For me, it's exciting to put all the pieces together and see the results,” said Byrne, 56, a retired state trooper from Orlando, Fla., who noted that some family members at the cemetery met for the first time yesterday.
Family lore said that Charlton was wounded in the battle of Gettysburg and rode his horse back to Pittsburgh, where he died, but research showed that wasn't quite the case.
Records showed that Charlton re-enlisted after he was wounded. He died in 1884.
“I feel a sense of pride in seeing what he did for our country,” said relative Casey Spirk, 26, of Pennsbury Village. “It's a sense of pride we should all have as Americans.”
Floyd's research led him to distant cousin Jeffrey Olson, who works for the Office of Communications in the National Park Service. Olson said he's looking forward to a reunion with his Pennsylvania relatives next year in Culpepper, Va., that will commemorate the King history.
Floyd's search was easier than most, as his cousin, Rosemary Seelt, wrote a book, called “The Family History of John B. King of Malone N.Y.” Floyd's mother, Clara King Floyd Ryan, also gathered documents.
“There are thousands of families stumbling across this information,” Olson said. “Or they've been cultivating this information for years, and now the family has to listen to stories for an hour or so.”
Simon believes that interest in the Civil War remains high, not just because of the anniversary.
“There's still antagonism. There are still race relations problems. There are still different political opinions,” Simon said.
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or email@example.com.
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