Tuesday, February 17, 2015
DID HE OR DIDN'T HE? ONLY NARA KNOWS!
Chester Dana Stevens - 1862
Almost everything in genealogical research starts out as a theory. You may know a fact for sure but really it is just a part of your "theory" until you can find definitive proof.
That is, of course, if you are a really dedicated genealogist. Some people don't want to work that hard, and their work is based on a lot of assumptions that may, or may not be right. I want mine to be RIGHT!
So here's my Stevens theory: Chester D. Stevens (1822-1902), my great-great-grandfather, was thought to have participated in the civil war. On what do I build that theory?
Firstly, his son Frank wrote a short blurb for a Kansas County History Book: "He was a stanch (sic) Republican and served during the Civil war as an officer in the commissary department." Now genealogists know that these county history books are notoriously suspect. People paid to have their biography published in this book, and the money collected was what got the book published. Of course, people writing their own bios tended to leave out the not-so-good stuff and puff up the truth, which might end up anywhere between a little mundane or a big fabrication. With that possibility in mind, I use Frank's report on his dad as part of my theory.
Secondly, handed down in our family are bits of two letters that Chester wrote to his baby daughter, "Ellen", at the time she was born on 15 September of 1862. The letters went to his wife in Mendota, Illinois, which is in northern Illinois where all the Stevens clan settled in the 1840s. One of those letters is shown below. Please note that Chester reports from Bolivar, Tennessee, puts "Commissary" on the letter and he definitely states that he is in the army, though he writes it with a lower case "a" (which may or may not mean something.)
An ancestor who serves in a war generally has a military record of some type residing in our country's National Archives and accessible to the public. But lo, there is nothing there for C. D. Stevens, Chester D. Stevens, Chester Dana Stevens, or for any of those names with the variation "Stephens" as a last name. I tried three different times over a four year period to find something that would indicate Chester's involvement in the Civil War. But three times the National Archives said their records did not show a man by any of those names in any branch of the service. Zilch. Zero. No military record, no pension, no nothing.
To cover all the bases, I looked for him in the Illinois militia, too. Zilch there, also.
Mind you, I've been trying to prove my Chester theory since 1984. Folks, that's 30 years!
Last year I had a new idea.
Chester's sister, Sophronia, married Steven A. Hurlbut, who at that time was an attorney in Belvidere, Illinois, near Mendota. When the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln put General Ulysses Grant (also a friend of the Stevens family) in place, and guess what? Grant appointed Hurlbut a Brigadier General and guess where he was in September of 1862 at the time Chester wrote his letter to his newborn daughter? If you said Bolivar, Tennessee, you would be correct.
The 53rd Infantry Volunteers, headed by Gen. Hurlbut, arrived in Bolivar on September 13 and moved out of Bolivar on October 4. My new theory now is heading toward the idea of General Hurlbut getting his brother-in-law (Chester) into the Commissary perhaps as a general contractor or the like. Of course, I have to prove or disprove that one now.
Recently at a genealogy society meeting we had a superb presentation by Kerry Bartels, an Archives Specialist at the Pacific Region National Archives recently relocated from Laguna Niguel to Riverside in California. After listening to Bartels, I am convinced that the National Archives holds the secret of my Chester's participation in the Civil War. He may not have been an officer of the commissary department but I do believe he had something very important to do about getting supplies to the Union Army in Bolivar, Tennessee.
Now even with the newly found confidence that I'm heading the right direction with my theory, I can't help but be a bit discouraged. As Bartels says, the National Archives has a huge amount of material and what is on line is only a miniscule part of it. And as he showed us, it is possible to find where things are kept. I try not to be negative, but I add: That may be so IF you are living right, IF you are smart enough, IF you have many years of life left in you, and IF you either can travel around the country to comb through millions of documents or have found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow to pay for hiring a researcher to do it for you.
I wish I knew in 1984 what I know now. If I had, and IF the stars were all in alignment, I might have had my theory proved by now, even understanding that sometimes what you fined is that you are left holding a theory blown to h--l by facts you didn't suspect.
Bartels gave a wonderful talk. I'm old enough, after researching for so many years, to appreciate what he said and not so old that I can't dream of possibilities. But I'm also realistic enough to know that it isn't likely going to happen in my lifetime. Maybe at some point down the line one of my descendants will become interested enough to take on the challenge of hunting for and locating the very box at the National Archives Branch that contains the Commissary Records pertaining to Bolivar, Tennessee in September of 1862 that will prove the role of Chester D. Stevens in the Civil War. Perhaps that person will even be able to access those records from the computer at his or her home. No, I'm not discouraged, just a little sad that it won't be me.
I hear you asking why we put ourselves through all this? Hey, I do it for no other reason than because it is great, great fun. The side benefit is that it is the kind of mental exercise that is supposed to ward off senility in old age! What a hopeful outcome that is for simply having fun!