A Complicated Question with an Eventually Simple Answer

As I have been researching Montgomery Ward’s life, a question occurred to me which I had not seen discussed before.  Why didn’t he serve in the Civil War?  His future business partner, George R. Thorne, did.

As a young man Ward had tried two trades, brick and barrel making, and concluded that he was not “physically or mentally equipped” for them.  Thus one can understand his not wanting to volunteer for the grueling life of a soldier.  He did, however, appear on the Civil War Draft Registration Records drawn up in 1863.  So what happened?  I could find no record of his serving.  Had he somehow shirked his duty?

This led me to lengthy research about the draft based on official records for the State of Michigan, where Ward resided in Ward 1 in the city of Niles.  (He is listed as Aaron Ward.  His middle name was Montgomery.) Did the Draft Registration Records get his age wrong?  He is listed as 20 years old, the minimum age for drafting, but his birthdate the census record for 1860, on which the Draft Registration Records were based, only listed his age at that time, no birthdate.  He was actually born in 1844 so was too young in 1863 to be drafted. That would have been the case in 1863, but not in succeeding years.  Could he have paid someone to take his place?  I doubted that as he and his family were not well off and making such a payment would have been a great expense for them.  In fact, at the time of the compilation of the Draft Registration Records, Ward was actually in St. Joseph, Michigan working as a clerk in a dry goods store to help support his family.

I then went through the entire State of Michigan Draft Registration Records to find other men from Ward 1 on the list and to check on their service.  Each state was assigned a certain number of soldiers to raise and if the number was not met, the state would then turn to the draft.  Had enough soldiers volunteered from Niles that no draft was necessary?

Here indeed lay the simple answer.  There was no draft conducted in Niles.  The draft was highly unpopular and the Governor of Michigan at the time did everything in his power to drum up volunteers, including bounties [money for signing up] which increased as the war progressed.


So Ward did not avoid the draft.  He simply was not called up and did not want to volunteer.  Ward was intent on helping his family and making a way for himself in the world, which he of course did.

Chapter 1: The Beginnings


In 1997 my husband Neil and I began to gaze into the future to envision what our retirement might look like.  We did not want to reach that point and then start to think about what to do with ourselves for the rest of our lives, or for at least as long as we could be physically active.  We had retirement accounts but our immediate resources were meagre and consisted of a small amount of money I had inherited from my aunt and the equity in our house.

My husband had been a free-lance writer.  Neil Allen Productions had its fingers in a number of pies.  It produced educational filmstrips, slide shows for the Hall of Photography at the Smithsonian Institute, various types of employee communications involving training and benefit packages, speeches, even legal briefs as well as the occasional ghost written piece.  During the recession of the mid-80’s, however, most of Neil’s customers—Sears, International Harvester, and others —backed off and he turned to gardening for a neighbor and in our own postage-stamp front and back yards for something to do until the hoped-for upturn in the economy.  Neil was not someone to do things by half measure.  Once smitten by gardening he took classes on botany and soil at the Morton Arboretum and installed a water lily pond replete with carp out back.  He had been a Classics major in college and always insisted on referring to plants by their scientific, Latin names.

I, on the other hand, had loved to paint flowers, often in watercolor and sometimes in oil.  I painted a shimmering purple-blue wisteria blossom on a tree Neil planted; I painted the pink, in- your-face lotus with its huge slowly sinuous leaves planted in the water lily pond he created; I painted the wildflowers—turtleheads, pearly everlastings, butter-and-eggs and the elegantly simple blue flag irises—along the roadsides around Eagle River, Wisconsin where we vacationed at his parents’ cabin on Meta Lake.

The two passions, particularly Neil’s passion for gardening, became the focus of what we wanted to do in retirement.  We felt it would keep us physically active as well as possibly make us a little money.  Neil initially at least wanted to name his dream nursery The Artist’s Gardens and Gallery with the idea that artists would be encouraged to come and paint the plants and that I would show their and my works on the premises.

Retirement was still a few years off, but we were pre-baby boomers, born during not after World War II; we knew that the baby boomer generation was fast behind us and many would be looking for a nice piece of real estate in the country when they decided to retire.  That would of course push land prices up.  So, we set out with some urgency to find property we could afford right then.

Neil and I knew that we could only be weekend gardeners on whatever plot we purchased and so that it needed to be within an easy driving distance of the southside of Chicago where we lived.  We figured a 3-hour drive was about the maximum we could handle each way.  That left out looking north towards Milwaukee as with the congested traffic in the Loop we would not get very far into the countryside of Wisconsin.  It also left out looking west as the western suburbs were overgrown.  This left south, deeper into Illinois and west, into Indiana and Michigan.

For some unknown reason we never looked south, perhaps because we knew the rich brown farmland of downstate Illinois would be beyond our pocketbooks.  Instead we gravitated east and spent many a weekend exploring areas in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan.  We sometimes just got off the expressway and leisurely toured by-roads enjoying the greenery, assessing the land and looking for “For Sale” signs.  Farms were being broken up into small plots, usually about 10 acres, which was more than enough on which to grow flowers for a nursery.  Sometimes we picked up magazines of real estate listings and visited ones that appealed to us.  Our goal was a 10-acre piece of land that had decent soil and hopefully a house that did not need too much work to fix up.

Our wanderings in Indiana did not turn up anything suitable.  The farmland there was rich, like in downstate Illinois, and we learned that it was going for $10,000 an acre, far beyond our means.  So, we began to focus on southwest Michigan.  After looking at one particularly miserable piece of land in Allegan, Michigan–all forested, slopping down into a boggy area, and divided between two sides of a road—we decided to take the plunge and put ourselves in the hands of a realtor.

We had seen a listing in one of the real estate circulars for a 10-acre property with a house that needed work and contacted the realtor.  We described what we were looking for and ended up spending the day driven around by him from property to property.  Of course, we went first to the listing we had seen advertised.  It turned out to be a real lesson for us.  The land was a poor, muddy mess and the old wood house had been stripped down to the lathing, which of course meant new plastering would be needed, but the owner had decided to install a whole house vacuum cleaner system instead.  We realized right away that we would end up spending all our precious time fixing the place up rather than concentrating on developing and planting the land.  So, having a house was removed from our list of property priorities.  We spent the rest of the day looking at various plots, some in watery areas, others with extremely sandy soil from which the rain would leach the vital nutrients for flowers, many were flag plots.  Flag plots are so called because access is provided by a road (the staff of the flag) to reach a plot of land at the rear (the flag).  Several flag plots would be nestled from one large piece of land.

At the end of the day, the realtor asked us which property we liked best—a smart sales ploy because we of course might not really have liked any—but the fact is we had fallen in love with a piece of land.  It was far more acreage than we needed, some over 27 acres, but what made it not the best farmland for corn and soybeans, the major crops in the area, was what appealed to us.  It was rolling land with a wetland in front that rose to a hill and then extended far back to rise yet again with a gentle slope down to the small drainage ditch beyond which was a forested area.  There was more forest area to the west and the houses of neighbors on either side were not close enough to make us feel we had to be more than neighborly.  The forested area in the back shielded us from whatever was done with the land beyond.

Not only did the property have no house—it had been sectioned off from the land where the old farm house stood—it had no road, no water, no electricity, just an interesting, spacious expanse that was inviting.  We wanted to take it on.  The realtor asked us to put in our best bid, that there was somebody else interested.  Whether this was true or not, we did not know but we put in our best bid and on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1968 learned that our bid had been accepted.  Not wanting to have two mortgages to pay, we refinanced our primary residence so that we could buy the land outright.  At the closing we met the owners and learned that they had planned to raise horses on the property, thinking that the wetland area I the front could provide the needed water but that did not prove to be the case and they had not paid property taxes for two years.

Maybe in hindsight we could have gotten the property for less, but we did not care.  As soon as all the paperwork was over, we drove to the property and “walked” the land, leisurely skirting the whole property with forays to the top of the hills for the views, which because of the rolling nature of the land changed dramatically from different angles.  The whole walk took about an hour.  We were to do this at least twice a year for the next almost 20 years.











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.