Roundtable speaker combines interest in Civil War, family history
What began as an innocent and unassuming family visit turned into a more than 30-year odyssey that enabled western Pennsylvania native Mark Miner to, as he referred to it, “find my niche.”
Through what, he added, was a series of amazing coincidences that were years in the making, Miner uncovered a family history that found no fewer than 115 members of his extended family having participated in the Civil War. And, this, the 150th anniversary of that conflict, makes Miner's discoveries more meaningful as a result.
While most families are able to, at best, identify two, three or perhaps as many as four or five generations in their often branchless- and leafless family trees, Miner, who lives in Beaver, traces his family's roots to Somerset County in the 1790s, when the United States, under presidents George Washington and John Adams, was in its formative years.
Miner, 51, who graduated from West Virginia University in 1983 with a degree in journalism, will be the featured speaker Thursday at the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable. Miner's presentation not coincidentally bears the same title as his book: “Well At This Time: The Civil War Diaries of Ephraim Miner of Somerset County.”
If the name sounds familiar, it should. Ephraim Miner is Mark Miner's great-great-grand-uncle.
During a visit to Miner's great-grandmother's home when he was 10 years old, his father's grandmother, as grandmothers are wont to do, pulled out the family photo album. Attending yet another family reunion and fascinated by some of those same pictures, his great-grandmother presented him the album.
“She said, ‘Find out about these people,'” Miner said, “and I've been searching ever since. I found paperwork in another relative's home and that led to discovering more about the family in Somerset County and its subsequent moves to other areas of Western Pennsylvania.”
Among the photos in that album was one of a great-great-great grandfather from Moundsville, W.Va., a member of the 12th West Virginia Infantry, Miner later discovered, killed in battle in Winchester, Va. Once Mark Miner discovered that piece of family history, he discovered that ancestor's Civil War papers in the National Archives, furthering his interest in the Civil War.
More than curious about his family history, Miner, an annual guest lecturer at the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, visited family members in Kingwood in Somerset County where he was escorted to a local cemetery. Ephraim Miner (1838-1921) is buried in that Kingwood cemetery. Another stop in Kingwood was to the home of Ephraim Miner's daughter, Minnie (Miner) Gary, who was born in 1892 and still lived in the house her father built when she passed away in 1985.
Proudly displayed on a wall in Ephraim's daughter's home was the same photo Miner initially saw in the family album, the photo which spurred his interest. Delving further into the family history, Miner discovered a copy of that soldier's Civil War papers. Additional visits to other family members, some of whom were initially cooperative, some mildly cooperative, and some not so cooperative, until Miner persuaded them about the historical significance of his intentions, resulted in an ever-growing family history.
During yet another profitable sojourn, Ephraim Miner's grand-niece gave Miner a photo of Ephraim Miner, the photo Mark Miner used for the dust jacket of his book. Miner received additional photos of Ephraim Miner from his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as other family members.
“I am immersed in what our American experience has been about and the more I found the more I dug,” he said, chuckling. “Meeting everyone and getting to know their people and hearing their stories, not just about the Civil War, but about the family's history has been a magnificent opportunity. I was always interested in American history and Americana, people and events, but this obviously brings everything close to home.”
While each artifact is as invaluable as the next, Ephraim Miner's Civil War diary, which he is holding in his hand in one of the Civil War-era photos, may perhaps be the most unusual.
“Ephraim's diary was not expansive but rather a description of his loneliness during his recovery from battle-related wounds,” Mark Miner said, adding that he cross-referenced the diary with historical references to his regiment, pinpointing exact locations and events.
But what makes Ephraim Miner's diaries all the more significant is another string of coincidences Mark Miner has explored.
Ephraim, Mark Miner noted, was in same places as noted and influential American poet and journalist Walt Whitman (1819-92), who worked as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. In fact, Whitman was a great hospice nurse, Mark Miner said, and often cared for soldiers who would not survive their wounds.
After being wounded, Ephraim Miner, whose brother, Chance Miner, also served in the Civil War, was sent to a military hospital in Washington, D.C., where he wrote about the hospital being situated near the capitol, as well as describing conditions in the facility.
Whitman was there at the same time, Mark Miner, a North Allegheny High School grad said, adding that he cross-referenced his ancestor's writings with those of Whitman and other events of the period.
“Ephraim wrote, ‘I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill,'” Mark Miner said, adding that Whitman penned exactly the same phrase.
Constantly searching, researching and writing, and thoroughly immersed in his family's history, since 2000 Miner has been webmaster of Minerd.com, named by Family Tree Magazine as one of the top 10 family websites in the nation.
For information regarding Thursday's Roundtable, which will be held in Room 206/207 in the Natali Student Center, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 724-258-3406. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. meeting.
Les Harvath is a freelance writer.