Decoration Day

When I mentioned to my editor that I was heading to East Tennessee for Decoration Day and hoped to leave early to get a jump on the traffic, she gave me a puzzled look.

“Decoration Day? What’s that?” she asked, knowing that we had just enjoyed a three-day weekend in celebration of Memorial Day.

I explained that Memorial Day used to be celebrated on May 30, and that it had been known as Decoration Day. The name “officially” changed in the 1960’s when President Johnson decreed the last Monday in May to be a federal holiday known as “Memorial Day,” meant to honor and remember the men and women who perished while in service to their country. Tradition is very strong in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee, and my Clinch Mountain relatives still celebrate Decoration Day on the Sunday following Memorial Day.

Unlike other parts of Tennessee, those from East Tennessee do not celebrate the Confederate Decoration Day, which is held on June 3. East Tennesseans were staunchly Unionist during the Civil War, and did not secede with the rest of the state. I’ve traced many of my East Tennessee ancestors to the Civil War, and not one of them wore the grey.

Most of my ancestors are buried in small family cemeteries. Some are attached to tidy little church houses; some are perched on hillsides within a ring of trees; still others sit tucked away in the corners of farmers’ fields – family land now in the possession of someone else. Regardless of their location, the cemeteries are made to look their very best for Decoration Day – grass is mown, weeds are pulled, and the headstones are cleaned and polished before flowers are placed. Tiny, ancient cemeteries with only a handful of weather-worn stones get the same royal treatment as the church cemeteries. The path to one diminutive family graveyard was fraught with weeds and poison ivy on the trek up the hillside, but inside the worn picket fence the space was clean and tidy.

This year the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms on Decoration Day, so we went to the cemeteries on Saturday instead, although most still planned to gather on Sunday for the traditional dinner on the ground at the little church next to the largest of the family cemeteries.

I took along an old, framed picture of long dead ancestors that I hoped someone could help me identify. The picture had always hung in my grandparent’s house, and when they passed away the picture went to my Dad. When he died, it became mine, but I didn’t know who they were. I’d already asked Dad’s remaining siblings about it, but the ancestors had died long before any of them were born, and they couldn’t recall their names. All I knew was what Dad had told me, “These men are your grandma’s uncles.”

Grandma had a lot of uncles – which of the twelve were they? As we walked around the cemetery, we chatted with family and strangers alike (for really there were no strangers – a few minutes of talking usually revealed yet another branch in the family tree) and showed the picture to them, to no avail. Most were simply too young to know.

We were close to giving up and I’d already put the picture back into the car when my cousin Bruce said, “Well I believe that old woman over there was married to a Cook. Let’s go see if she knows anything.” We spoke to her and she agreed to have a look at the picture. When I showed it to her she said, “Well they’re definitely Cooks, but I don’t know which ones.” The photo had created quite a bit of interest by this time, and soon a few more had gathered around to have a look. One was a woman about my age who had been cleaning off the picnic tables in preparation for Sunday’s dinner on the ground. (It’s not literally on the ground, it’s on picnic tables – but it is on the church ground, hence the name) She took one look at the picture and excitedly pointed to the man on the left. “That’s grandpa! I’d know that picture anywheres! We’ve got a smaller one like that and he’s with grandma in it! That is Rev. Isaac Cook!”

I was over the moon to finally know who at least one of the uncles was – and we were standing less than 20 feet from his grave at the time. We got to talking excitedly with each other, which piqued the interest of others in the cemetery, who came over to see what the fuss was about. One of those who came over was a 94 year old woman who said she’d like to look at it too. We held up the picture so that she could see it, and she pointed to the man on the right and said, “Well I do believe that is John Cook. Them boys all favored one another, but I am near certain it’s John. He always was a most handsome feller…”

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitting the Jackpot With Pension Files

The wealth of information found in old pension records never ceases to amaze me.

I already knew that my great-great-grandfather Thomas Stewart had enlisted as a soldier in the Kentucky Cavalry, along with older brother David and father Elijah, to fight for the Union cause during the Civil War. I also knew that he was the only member of the family to come home. His brother and father died within a week of each other in Barracks Hospital, New Orleans and are buried in Chalmette National Cemetery. Most of this information was gleaned from their military records, which had been ordered from the National Archives.

Because Thomas was the only one to come home, and because he lived a very long life, I had a hunch that he must have received a soldier’s pension somewhere along the way. is an excellent resource for locating soldiers’ pension numbers, so I nosed around in the Civil War section until I found them. Using this information, I filled out Form 85D on the National Archives web site, hit the “send” button, and waited.

Thomas R StewartIn less than one month an oversized parcel arrived via UPS from the National Archives. Inside were the first 100 pages of Thomas Stewart’s pension claim. I was astonished that there were so many pages – most of the other pension files I have for ancestors aren’t nearly so large – and was surprised to find out that there are more pages available if I am interested. The National Archives only sends the first 100 pages (because most pension files are less than that) but if there are more they send along a letter and an order form with a discounted rate for the remaining pages.

I was even more amazed by what the file itself contained. For starters, there were handwritten letters from my great-great grandfather regarding his pension. His daughter, my great-grandmother, was very proud of the fact that “all the Stewarts were educated and knew how to read and write” and here in the file was proof. The correspondence was fairly basic and his handwriting wasn’t as grand as those of the census takers and court workers of the time, but it was physical proof of what my great-grandmother had always proudly proclaimed.

The big shocker, however, was that I never knew that Thomas had been married prior to his marriage to my great-great grandmother Josephine. In the 1860 census he is 16 and living at home, and in 1870 he is married to Josephine. Obviously a lot had happened to Thomas during the ten years in between. As I read, I learned that he had wed a young woman a year after returning home from the war. I learned her father’s name and the names of her many siblings were there too. They were wed in May of 1866 and made their home in Jackson County. She gave birth to a son which they named James, and died at home before the baby was able to walk.

Thomas briefly courted Josephine and they were wed in her parent’s house in July of 1868. Josephine’s sisters remembered that the wedding took place much earlier in the day than originally planned, on account of the preacher arriving sooner than they had anticipated. Their brother had walked over to the general store thinking he had plenty of time before the preacher showed up, and ended up missing the entire ceremony. Josephine recalled that her brother had accompanied Thomas and her father to the county courthouse to get the marriage license. The name of the early-bird preacher was also in the pension file, as well as the church where he ministered.

Josephine admitted that she and Thomas married quickly because he needed “someone to attend to the child,” who “was too little to walk” and that they moved into the house he had shared with his former wife. She told of the child dying “about two years of age – just as he was beginning to walk real good” and of how she learned from neighbors that most of the deceased wife’s siblings had also died young: “The family all died of consumption when they got grown or about it.”

All this detail was in the pension file because after Thomas died and Josephine turned in the paperwork for a widow’s pension, the Department of the Interior-Bureau of Pensions tried to deny her claim when she could not produce a marriage license to prove she had married Thomas Stewart. That she had given him eleven children and lived with him for over 55 years wasn’t enough for the Bureau of Pensions in Washington D.C. They wanted proof – and what the pension inspector found while going through the courthouse ledgers was the marriage of Thomas and his deceased wife, rather than the marriage of Thomas and Josephine. Over the course of the next year, correspondence whizzed back and forth between the little hamlet of Duluth, Kentucky and Washington D.C., with inspectors visiting any and all living relatives along the way. They visited Josephine in Duluth; interviewed a sister in Ohio and two more in Illinois. They went to Clover Bottom, Ky. and spoke with the surviving kinfolk of the first wife as well, and scoured the courthouses of three Kentucky counties looking for proof that she had died, and that Josephine and Thomas had married.

By the time Josephine finally began receiving her widow’s pension two years after originally filing, she was 80 years old. She would continue to draw $40 a month until her death five years later.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

In Search of my Great Grandfather

I really hate trying to wade through government bureaucracy, but it is a necessary evil when requesting military files on deceased ancestors. Most government web sites are incredibly bloated, with the pertinent information buried so deep on the site that it takes a lot of patience to weed out the wheat from the chaff.


The National Archives is one of the better governmental web sites, but it is filled with a frustrating nightmare of subcategories. First time users to the site may throw up their hands in defeat, no matter how web savvy they may otherwise be. I know when I first began using their site I would get aggravated quite a lot. Usually this was because after clicking through the links on the site – getting deeper and deeper into the labyrinth – I’d suddenly come out exactly where I’d began, and none the wiser as to how to go about ordering the records I wished to order.


Once I found the correct path, I saved it as a favorite so as not to lose it again. The National Archives is a great resource for requesting pre-WWI military records – once you locate the proper forms and go through the proper channels. I’ve gotten a number of ancestor’s files from the Archives, mostly Revolutionary and Civil War records. Each Military Service Record costs $25.00 and is money well spent since the records give an interesting glimpse into the life of the ancestor.


It took awhile, but I managed to track down the military service records for my great grandfather William Seal. I knew he had been a proud member of the U.S. Military because he had the information inscribed on his tombstone: Private Wm. Seal, Company H, 41st Regiment, US Volunteer Infantry. I also knew that he drew a pension and that my great grandmother continued to draw it after his death, but no one in my family could remember which war William had fought in.

 William & Elizabeth Seal grave marker

A quick look at his birth date clued me in – he wasn’t born at the time of the Civil War, and he would have been too old for service in WWI. That only left the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. I filled out Form NATF 86 (Compiled Military Service File) online at the Archives with the information I had on hand, and because my ancestor had been proud enough of his service to have the information forever inscribed where he lay, there was enough information for the researchers at the Archives to locate his service record and copy it for me.


My next task was to obtain a copy of his pension file. I tried to order them through the National Archives Request and Order Records link (which is how I got his military records), but when I finished filling out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) I was thwarted by a pop-up window that told me that the Archives stopped storing pension records for soldiers who had died after 1929. My great-great grandfather died in 1942, so according to the National Archives web site, I needed to file a request with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs using the Freedom of Information Act.


Can I just say that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is the most unfriendly web site I have ever encountered? Links go round and round in circles, giving precious little information and a whole lot of broken links and pages saying “We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties.” It’s truly unbelievable that ANYONE could ever find what they are seeking on this site.


Using information provided by the National Archives pop-up window, I learned which form was needed and where to send it, and I filled out and faxed Form NARA SF 180 to the processing center in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately the processing center experienced a devastating fire in 1973 and lost more than 16 million Army and Air Force personnel records. Over 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 were lost in the fire, as well as 75% of Air Force records from 1947-1964.


William was discharged in 1901, but his pension claim continued until the death of his wife in the 1950’s, so chances are likely that his pension file was in the building destroyed by the fire. Still I wait and hope, and out of desperation I printed and filled out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) and mailed it in to the National Archives, just in case the pension record of a young volunteer serviceman from Tennessee, discharged in 1901, is there.

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (2)