Having a plan can be the easy part. Putting it in motion and improving it as you go is where the real success is often found. I knew what I needed to do and I believed that I had an approach that would be successful. Now it was time to put it to the test.
To review, I started with students’ names, the years they attended the institute, and home residences to help me find out who — beyond the already existing list — served in the Civil War. I had no budget to hire any assistants or pay for subscription databases. Nevertheless, I got started and decided I would turn back to that issue when the time came.
A key early decision was creating a given starting point for the student’s birth year. At the time, the institute was a preparatory school with students as young as twelve and as old as twenty. The institute’s earliest alumni who attended in 1850 would have been between 23 and 29 years old, approximately. Thus, I would enter a date range for birth year between 1835 and 1845, knowing that most search engines will still include results within a few years of the start and finish of the range. Now my search had the following: name, birth year range, and residence place. It was large enough in most cases to get a good result but would also eliminate much of the extraneous ones. Only when the name was extremely common like Smith, Jones, or Miller did I need to have more to make a good start.
I began with the census records to confirm a man with the name on my list lived in the same area reported on the original student roster as his residence. When I had that, I also had a better date of birth and information regarding his family. If I could not confirm the residence, it would become much more complicated. In many cases, this was important as more than one member of the family attended the school and/ or served in the war. From census records, I went through as many resources as I needed including Family Search, Rootsweb, our institutional histories, online databases from area historical societies, newspaper indexes, county histories, obituaries, cemetery records, photographs, diaries, and anything else that I could find.
On the soldier side of the search, I had to go through military records and that was my first stumbling block. Regimental histories would only provide so much information. If I were to prove that the student ‘A’ was the soldier ‘A’ I needed to view more databases with more digitized records. In many cases, that meant I needed to find a way to pay for subscriptions.
With no funding available, I approached the local historical society and explained the project and asked for money to purchase at least one subscription. They were extremely supportive and agreed to pay for it. Later, I would also purchase a couple small database subscriptions with my own money but it was worth it. This had become a labor of love.
I quickly fell into a standard formula for each name. I checked the census records, draft registrations, and pension records for clues that the soldier’s information was dovetailing with information I was finding about the rest of the man’s life. I had a rule that I had to have at least three points in time that had to match, more if the name was more common. For the student, I tried to track him before and after the war. I also checked marriage information (the wife’s name could be important when checking pension and beneficiary records), cemetery records, obituaries. If there were more than two differences the name was put on hold and I moved to the next listing. This didn’t mean that the student did not serve in the war. It only meant that I had not found proof one direction or the other. Over the course of the next 18 months, I uncovered amazing stories of service and valor among these former students, as well as, incredible tragedies. I also discovered that there were alumni serving in almost every state in the Union and a handful that served in the South.
Only once did I receive a request to remove a name from the list. A descendant was able to show that there must have been two people with almost the exact life before the war because even though I could prove everything I had, and all the facts lined up perfectly between the student and the soldier, he had a few letters from his ancestor that showed he could not have been in a unit in Virginia. In spite of the fact that I could only find one listing for the name in any record group, I could not get passed the letters and I removed the name.
The successes of this project were many. First, we went from a list of 135 soldiers who had attended the school to over 400. Second, through progress reports and stories posted to college publications, I was able to promote the school’s history to a new audience and it led to similar projects by other people in the area. Third, I was able to create a resource for others who were searching for information about these young men.
Sadly, the database is no longer available for public viewing as the archives was closed due to budgetary cuts. However, the work is still in files and if fortunes reverse, the material is ready to go. If I had known that the archives would close and the database taken offline, would I have done all this work? I think I would have. It helped me become a much better local historian, a good detective, and an excellent researcher who is willing to be open to all possibilities.
Until next time,
Cheers! ~~ Jenn