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Friday, April 6, 2012

April 6, 1862 - Shiloh

Battle of Shiloh on April 6 (Wikipedia)

On a Sunday morning, near a tiny church called Shiloh, a battle commenced that would be pivotal to the year-long struggle between Union and Confederate forces. This battle near the Tennessee River would open the eyes of the nation to how savage and costly this war would become. An army of nearly 44,000 men, under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, had moved north from Corinth, Mississippi through rain-drenched roads and was dispersing through heavily vegetated woodlands.

The plan was to attack General Ulysses Grant's forces positioned at Pittsburg Landing before reinforcements could arrive from the north.  The battle did not go as planned, and its orchestrator, General Johnston, was mortally wounded early in the day. History tells us that April 6 saw the battle lines move back and forth throughout the day, and by nightfall, the Confederate forces had only made moderate advances to their objective.  The troops, scattered through the forest, would be bombarded through the following night by Union warships in the river. Overnight, the Union reinforcements arrived and the objective of the Confederate assault was lost.  At the end of the day of April 7, the Confederate forces had abandoned the field, retreating back to Corinth.

In the end, Shiloh would prove to be the costliest battle in American history to that time. Union casualties would  reach to 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing) and Confederate casualties were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). Nearly 3,500 men had died in the two days of battle and 16,420 wounded, bearing the scars of the battle for the rest of their lives.

Among General Grant's forces was the 45th Illinois Infantry regiment and a young sergeant named Charles K. Erwin, my great-great granduncle.  He would survive this battle and make ready his men for the coming campaign at Corinth.

Further to the south in northern Mississippi, my 3x great grandfather, James Joseph Street and his eldest son (my 2x great grandfather), George M.D. Street,  were training with the 34th Mississippi Infantry regiment, Company G (Sons of Liberty), to prepare to defend Corinth, and their nearby home near Ripley, from the Union invasion into Mississippi.

The war for many more men, including Charles' nephew, William Peter Erwin, has not even begun.  By the end of the war, it is estimated that 750,000 people will have lost their lives to the war.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

It's 1940 Again.

Along with all of the other genealogists, I'm getting ready for the release of the 1940 United States Census records on Monday, April 2. It's definitely the greatest event since I began my research just over a year ago, but the release of the national census records with the current advancements of the internet has to rate among the greatest single events in American genealogy ever. The records will, for the first time, be released as free digital images.  It doesn't hurt that there will be even more information that will be provided that was not placed on previous census collections.

1940 Census to be released April 2, 2012

By law, American census records are released no sooner than 72 years following the year of record. The 1940 US Census Community project was started to begin a collaborated effort to index the national records of the 132 million people in America in 1940. Genealogy groups and individuals are joining with organizations in a systematic approach to make this process as precise as possible. 

For those of us who are going to jump into the data records for the first time, it's a learning experience. I've been through the easier processes of hunting through older census records after indexing and have had the great success and frustrations as everyone else. Fortunately, others have passed through those roads before me and relieved me of some of the searching. As we approach this momentous occasion, I thought I would share with you a quick tip or two to help get you started looking into the records if you haven't figured it out yourself. Neither of my parents will show up in this census, but their families will.  Finding them in the records comes down to knowing in what Enumeration District they lived - and then do a little strolling.

First, jump to the National Archives web page for the 1940 census records. It provides plentiful information on how to read the enumeration districts and to identify information about the families.  They have a whole page that describes how to look up enumeration district maps, what family information to collect to begin your search, and to find links to other sites.  One of those sites is one of the best finds, especially if you've already been digging through the 1930 records.

One very useful site can be found at  This 1940 Census Enumeration District (ED)Finder can be used to locate the correct ED for your target. Once you arrive to a particular city, it will provide information for each enumeration district in the area. You can even identify streets within the ED.  The more detail you can provide it, the better.  If you're not aware of this information but have the ED for the family from the 1930 census record, it will place you in the correct ED for the 1940 census.  Are they still there?  That's your job to figure out.

The various genealogy websites and organizations can lend many more directions for those particular sites. provides a support page to help train you for searching the census records.

This will be fun!  The 1940 census will bring us new sources of information and may even help unravel a mystery or two.  Based on all we can uncover from census records of the past, there is a proven treasure trove awaiting.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Flag Of The 93rd

The battles-scarred remnants of the retired flag in its final rest.

93rd Illinois Infantry National Flag

The American Civil War was a bitter stain on our national history. It was a time which forced men into terrifying conflicts and hardship. Where men stood looking at sown fields near quiet villages now stood across fields of death many miles from their families. The stories are those of bravery but also of terrible horror.  

In our distinctive families, we can find our several ancestors who fought in the many battles of that war.  Most noted in my family is the story of William Peter Erwin, my great grand uncle.  He left his home and family at Ward's Grove, Illinois in October of 1862 to join in the fight. He died on the morning of November 25, 1863 during the battle at Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga.  

I ran across a 2003 article by Bob Cavanagh for the Illinois Times. In this he recalled a manuscript he read at the Illinois State Historical Library.  The letter was written by Lt. Col. Nicholas Buswell, commander of the 93rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, from his post at Bridgeport, Alabama on December 20, 1863, nearly a month after the eventful battle.  The letter and the regimental flag was sent to the Illinois Governor Richard Yates.  The flag of stars and stripes was in tatters and barely recognizable, battered by gun shot and the elements of battle.

Mr. Cavanagh provided in his article portions of the eloquent letter I would like to share with you here. It presents that fateful moment that is marked in our family legends. 

"Governor: In consideration of the fact that the national colors of this regiment have been so much torn and mutilated in the many engagements through which they have been borne that they are no longer fit for service, we deem it proper to return it to the state, to be preserved among the archives of that Commonwealth, made glorious by the deeds of her sons on many hard fought fields. In returning the 'Old Flag' to you, it may be of interest to state a few of the leading incidents connected with it since it has been in our keeping .  

"During our first campaign, and through the battle of Jackson, Cpl. James Hickey was color bearer. At Champion Hill, after he had planted the proud standard for the third time . . . the brave Hickey fell. E're the folds of the flag had touched the ground, it was caught by Cpl. A.G. Spellman, who bore it from that time through the fierce contest. Its folds were pierced by 27 bullets, the staff being hit by 4 or 5, cutting it nearly off. In the charge on Tunnel Hill, Nov. 25th, Cpl. Spellman, now Lance Sergeant, after planting the flag within 20 paces of the enemy's works, was severely wounded. Sgt. William P. Erwin now caught it and gallantly planted it again, and was instantly killed. Our brave and lamented Col. Putnam now called out 'Give me the flag!' It was handed him, but alas! While waving it with one hand, as with the other he waved his sword, he fell . . . Cpl. J. Frank Ellis now took it and carried it through the rest of that fearful struggle, and though wounded, carried what was left of it off the field, though more than three quarters of it had been shot away by grape and canister from the enemy's guns . . . . Grand total loss: 316 officers and men.

"With this brief memoranda, we return to you the flag which but little more than a year ago we brought to the field. In parting with it, our feelings are those of pride mingled with sadness; pride, that we are conscious of having borne it with honor not only to ourselves and State, but to the cause in which we are engaged; sadness that so many of our noble companions have fallen in its defense. In sacred memory of them let it be preserved, stained with blood though it be, 'tis the blood of noble patriots, shed in a glorious cause -- the cause of Civil Liberty."