Finding the Kernel of Truth in Family Stories


The genesis of the idea for the book I am in the process of researching, A Soldier Called Henry Smith, was my own great-grandfather, Henry Jackson Smith.  Learning about his service in the Civil War sparked my interest in the gritty details of a common soldier’s life.  There are countless Henry Smiths, both Union and Confederate, who fought in this bitter conflict and I will be choosing ones to narrate that offer diverse and interesting perspectives on what it was like to be part of it. if you happen upon this blog and have a relative named Henry Smith who fought in the Civil War, I would love to hear from you.

Of course, Henry Jackson Smith will be among the soldiers featured.  In researching him I had two main conundrums.  One was the very, very common last name, only narrowed slightly by the first name (middle names were not generally used in Civil War records).  The second was family lore.  Interesting tidbits about ancestors enliven family history, but verifying whether George Washington really slept in an ancestor’s house on his way to Valley Forge is a difficult, if not often hopeless, quest.  In my case the story about my great-grandfather was that he didn’t want to talk to family members about his experiences in the war and there was lurking some shadow of prison camp internment, possibly at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp.



Through patient sifting through family and census records, I was able to follow his family’s migration west from Pennsylvania to Ohio and find that he had enlisted in the Ohio 96th Infantry Regiment, Company D in August of 1862 for three years.  He was 21 at the time, described as of sandy complexion with hazel eyes and red hair.  He stood 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches according to one report and 5 feet 9 ½ inches according to another.  He enrolled for duty before the federal government passed the conscription act that instituted the draft, so I assume he enlisted out of patriotism. He did receive a bounty of $25 (worth $2,268,84 in 2016) so that may have been an incentive as well.  With this information, I was able to read the regimental history and order his service records from the National Archives.  What I learned surprised me, but revealed there was a kernel of truth in the family story about him.

Henry Jackson Smith served until the end of the war, but he did not remain in the same military unit. His story begins with his regiment marching from Cincinnati across a pontoon bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky in September, 1862.  By October he was sick but the muster rolls show he was with his regiment in November and December travelling from Louisville to Memphis.  The journey took place in deplorable conditions, even allowing for the hyperbole of the report in The History of Marion County Ohio:

[The Ninety-Sixth] then embarked for Memphis, Tenn., on the 19th of November, where they were encamped about a month.  While there they were reviewed by Gen. Sherman and ordered to embark on the steamer Hiawatha and proceed down the river with the forces under his command, the objective point being Vicksburg, Miss.  The men were blissfully ignorant of the severe service awaiting them, but were soon brought to a realization of circumstances that every participant must look back to with horror.  The whole regiment and its outfit of wagons, teams, etc. together with the Seventeenth Ohio Battery, with its guns, horses and mules were packed on this small craft.  Nearly every member of the battery was sick with the measles.  The horses and mules were placed on deck, their heads tied on either side, forming between them a narrow aisle.  Only partial rations of hard bread and roasted coffee could be had, the only resort [alternative] being flour and green coffee, which required cooking and roasting.   It may have been necessity, but certainly it was a bitter fatality.  The only facility for cooking was a small stove on the after deck, to reach which it was necessary to run the gauntlet of two hundred pairs of treacherous heels and the fifth of such a stable.  First, the coffee and meat were cooked and eaten, with hard bread, but the supply of the latter was soon exhausted, and the men were forced to mix flour with water and bake it on the same stove.  With the best effort possible, it was often 2 o’clock before all had their breakfast with the half-cooked material.  If this were not all that flesh and blood could endure, cold rain continually drenched all who were not under cover, and for want of room many were forced to remain on the hurricane deck, famished with hunger and tortured with sleeplessness.  All day and all night the little stove was occupied by men preparing unhealthy rations, the while they saved from immediate starvation, were not slow in connection with other causes, in developing diseases that were equally fatal to those who were exposed and those who were packed close in the ill-ventilated and over-crowded apartments.  Everywhere were sunken eyes, thin cheeks and tottering steps.  Surgeon Henderson, his assistants, labored incessantly to check disease and relieve the sufferings of the men, but typhoid, measles and erysipelas [an acute skin infection that produces red, swollen rashes accompanied by high fever, shaking, chills, fatigue, headache and vomiting] were masters, everything seemingly rendering them aid.  Death did a frightful work.

The 96th Infantry Regiment first landed at Millkin’s Bend, Louisiana where it marched to destroy Confederate railroad track and trestles and burn depots of cotton.  It proceeded to embark for “the river” and took part in a successful attack on Fort Hindman, which overlooked the Mississippi and was disrupting Union navigation.  At the time there were only 244 effective soldiers in the regiment.  Ten were killed and 25 wounded in the assault.  During its subsequent moves and skirmishes with Confederate troops, the regiment lost 76 men, mainly to disease. One skirmish saw the men marching through a swamp about 3 miles wide and fording a stream about 3 ½ feet deep.

Then came Vicksburg.  The Ohio 96th Infantry took part in the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi from May 18, 1863 to July 4, 1863.  The city, high on a bluff, could not be taken by assault so the strategy was to starve the city into surrender.  Once it surrendered the Union had effective control of the Mississippi River.  There were skirmishes in which the 96th participated but no casualties were reported.

Four days after the surrender of Vicksburg, Henry Jackson Smith was sent north sick to the General Hospital at Fort Pickering, Tennessee, near Memphis.  He was to see no further action; he was diagnosed and treated for several months for chronic splenitis [having an enlarged, inflammed spleen as a result of infection, parasites or cysts].  Instead he was transferred in September to the Invalid Corp, later named the Veterans’ Reserve Corp, specifically to the VCR 22nd Regiment, Company G. The Veterans’ Reserve Corps was created in April of 1863 as a military reserve corps within the Union Army to help counter the depletion of the Union troops due to deaths, injuries and illnesses.  Rather than discharging soldiers who were only partially disabled or otherwise infirm but functioning, the Union Army transferred those considered by their commanding officers to be meritorious and deserving to the VRC to perform light duty, including escorting substitutes, recruits and prisoners to and from the front and guarding camps, railroads and defenses around Washington, D.C.  In March of 1864 Henry Jackson Smith was in fact at the Cliffburn Barracks in Washington, D.C. where he was on “detached service” at the Chain Bridge.  The Chain Bridge connected Washington, D.C. to Virginia and so was vital in defending the capital from Confederate attack.

The kernel of truth in the family story about Henry Jackson Smith lies in the other function of the Veterans’ Reserve Corps—guarding Union prison camps.  There were 17 Henry Smiths who were imprisoned at Andersonville.  None was he.  Rather in July and August 1864 he was detailed to Elmira, New York where a new Union prison camp was established.  By July it had 9,600 prisoners and soon became one of the worst of the Union prison camps, with a death rate of 24%; Andersonville had a death rate of about 29%.  Prisoners at what came to be known as “Hellmira” died from malnutrition, exposure to bitter cold temperatures and disease produced by poor sanitary conditions and medical care.  The camp only existed for one year.  Henry Jackson Smith’s encounter with prison camps did not end here.  In June, 1865 Special Orders were issues for him to take up duty at the prison hospital at the prison camp in Camp Chase, Ohio.  Mercifully the war ended a month later.

My great-grandfather’s unwillingness to share the horrors of what he experienced and observed with his family is understandable.  Family correspondence reveals that he regularly attended Grand Army of the Republic encampments [gatherings] in Kansas.  The GAR was a fraternal organization of Union veterans who banded together for comradeship and political advocacy for, among other things, Republican candidates, voting rights for black veterans, veteran pensions, and the establishment of Memorial Day. Surrounded by other veterans who had shared similar hardships, he perhaps found solace.


The Reticent A. Montgomery Ward





Living in Chicago for so many years, I of course have marveled at and enjoyed the miles of public park that line Lake Michigan.  As I learned of Montgomery Ward’s role in helping to preserve the lakefront for public use, at the expense of his own fortune and the ire of fellow businessmen, I came to admire him.  I could find no biography and learned that he revealed little of himself, preferring to remain out of the public spotlight and lead a very private life.  Even his philanthropy was handled discretely by an individual hired for the purpose.

So, I have set out on the task of trying to write a more complete telling of his life and character than has previously appeared.  I am helped by the fact that I am familiar with Niles, Michigan, where he grew up and where his parents and other relatives remained during their lifetimes, and have already come across articles in local newspapers that shed some light on him.  I will dig more there as well as at the Chicago History Museum, which houses the majority of papers dealing with him and his company.  It is not Montgomery Ward the company, however, in which I am interested, but Aaron Montgomery Ward the man.

I can think of no better way of introducing readers to Montgomery Ward the man than to compare the entry he prepared for the 4th edition of Who’s Who in America, published in 1906, with the entry written by fellow merchant Marshall Field.  Individuals prepared their own entries in answer to various questions and so the entries truly reflect their personalities.  Here is Field’s entry:

Field, Marshall, merchant; b. Conway, Mass., 1835; s. John and Fidelia (Nash) F.; spent boyhood on farm, studied at acad. until 1852; dry goods clerk, Pittsfield, Mass., 1852-6; in Chicago, 1856-60; junior partner, 1860-5, then senior partner in house, which became, 1865, Field, Palmer & Leiter’ Potter Palmer, retired, 1867, and Levi Z. Leiter, 1881, Mr. Field becoming head of Marshall Field & Co., now having the largest wholesale and retail dry goods business in the world.  Founded, with gift of $1,000,000 the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago; gave land worth $450,000 to Univ of Chicago; Dir., U.S Steel Corp., dir. Pullman Co., Chicago & Northwestern Ry. Co., Rock Island & Pacific Ry. Co., Merchants’ Loan & Trust Co.  Twice married: 2nd, London, September 5, 1905, Mrs. Della Spencer Caton of Chicago.  Residence: 1905 Prairie Av., Chicago.

Ward’s entry is shorter and much more modest:

Ward, A. Montgomery, mcht; b. Chatham, N.J. 1844; s. Sylvester A. and Julia L.M. (Greene) W; g.g.s. Capt. Israel Montgomery Ward of Revolutionary fame; self-ed. and self-made; m. Chicago, 1872, Elizabeth J. Cobb; Founded firm of Montgomery Ward & Co., 1872, of which he has since been pres.  Residence: The Kenwood.  Office: Mich. Ave. and Madison St., Chicago.

It is the “self-ed. and self-made” which strikes me as so revealing.  I have my work cut out for me in understanding and penetrating his life.

Emails are not Letters

As a means of communication, letters offer so much more than emails.  Letters, whether typed or, even better, handwritten, take time and thought; emails rarely do.  Perhaps because they are usually longer, letters better convey the personality and emotions of the sender; emails rely on the hardly personal emojis.  Letters are physical objects that can be kept and read again by the recipient or later, historians; emails are generally transient and whether researchers studying our era in the future will be able to access and read them is an open question.

I have felt all this keenly as I have read through family letters that my brother and I have inherited from our father’s family.  We all keep items that are precious to us— pictures of loved ones, mementoes of trips, dried corsages from proms and weddings.  This family kept letters and what letters they are, full of life, sickness and death; hard grueling farm work and delight in taking photographs; bitter cold and sweltering heat on the plains of Kansas.  They show care for each other in so many ways, expressed succinctly in the way they, both male and female, closed their letters:  Love to All from All.

My favorite letter, which I share here, reads like a short Annie Proulx story.  The writer is my great-uncle John, who has just recovered from a serious railroad accident that shattered bone in his hip and put him in the hospital for a long stretch of time.  With the money he got as a settlement from the railroad, he purchase land to farm in Missouri and wrote to his financé the following:


Henry Co. Mo. [Missouri]

On the place & in my log

Cabin door Nov. 25th 96

at 1 o’clock & no dinner & eat

breakfast at 5 this morning &

have walked & walked till I

am all tired out.


My Dear Lula. 

I hardly expect you will get this letter before I come but ‘twill do no harm for it seems like 3 month’s scince [since] I bid you good bye for a few days.  I have run around & worked untill I am nearly sick & is raining this afternoon but I will have to go 7 or 8 miles to catch the Clinton Stage in the morning & as I have to stop in K.C. [Kansas City] & then again in Atchison it will take untill Sat anyway & maybe more for me to get home.  You have no Idea how it looks in here in this cabin.  Will try & tell you when I get there & all the trips I have had & the roads.  I am glad indeed to hear you are well & as I expect to see you in a very few days I’ll close with Truest Love to you my own my Darling.  I am as ever Your Truly John

A love letter for the ages.

Walter Freeman and Me

As the time comes ever nearer for the publication of Examined Lives, I am still trying to understand the man who performed a lobotomy on my mother. I never met Walter Freeman, the man who was the very public face of lobotomies as cures for mental illness in the mid-20thcentury and at whose own reckoning performed some 3,500 such operations.  The photo below of his performing a lobotomy, without mask or gloves, in front of curious bystanders was one of his publicity stunts.  The procedure he used extensively, as depicted, involved hammering an ice pick-like device through the eye socket and wiggling it back and forth to severe connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.25616

Freeman performed that operation on my mother in 1950.  He saw her for the first time on a Friday, pronounced her a paranoid schizophrenic, and did the procedure the following Monday.  The man wasted no time.

The operation drastically changed my mother’s life and so my own.  Her diary and scrapbooks reveal her to have been a vivacious, competent woman.  She came to Chicago on her 20th birthday and began her rise in the hospitality industry, starting with serving at the lunch counter at a busy Walgreen’s Drugstore at Rush and Oak Streets, where she ended up supervising 12 other waitresses, to serving as room captain at the Camellia Room of the Drake Hotel, frequented by the likes of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.  In her off hours she devoured the nightlife, visiting numerous clubs on any one night with a string of young swain, several of whom wanted to marry her. One was Jerry with whom she visited a night club and “afterward on the way home Jerry and I spied a baby buggy in an apartment house hall and we stole it and I rode down Rush Street in a baby buggy.  Fun. They took the buggy back though.”

After the lobotomy, her drive and “sparkle,” as my aunt put it, was taken from her and in fact she ended up being “adjudged insane” and institutionalized for a period of time.

What led to her having the lobotomy?  That is the story I tell in my book Examined Lives, based on thousands of pages of family letters, diaries, scrapbooks, medical records, an unpublished novel, poetry, and photographs.  And, yes of course, on the writings of Walter Freeman.