Monday, February 24, 2014

Ezra Alger, Prisoner at Andersonville

George, an old friend of my husband’s, lost his father when he was just a teenager.  He wanted to know more about his father’s family history and I offered my help.  Going back a few generations, I found the story of Ezra Alger, who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Private Ezra B. Alger was a member of Company I of the 7th New York Artillery, enlisting on December 16, 1863 in Hudson, New York.  According to the New York State Military Museum website, the 7th New York Artillery Regiment fought at Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia in May of 1864, suffering over 200 casualties during that month.

The 7th then fought at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia from June 1-12, 1864.  They suffered 418 casualties there, either killed, wounded, or missing in action—including Ezra Alger.  He was captured by the enemy on June 3, 1864 and was sent to the infamous Andersonville Prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

Andersonville is now a National Historic Site with a huge military cemetery.  According to, about 45,000 Union prisoners were kept on its 26.5 acres, and nearly 13,000 of them died of starvation and disease and were buried there.  One Union soldier described arriving there like this:  “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror… Before us were forms that had once been… stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.  Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of  their feeling, exclaimed, ‘Can this be hell?’”

Wikipedia goes on to say that Andersonville was frequently undersupplied with food, and the prisoners suffered from hunger, exposure, and disease.  The water supply was polluted due to overcrowding and poor sanitation, and the desperate conditions made some of the men turn to violent infighting. 

In the autumn of 1864 after the capture of Atlanta, the surviving prisoners were taken to other, better prison camps, but it was too late for Ezra Alger.  He never came home, and was reported to have died at Andersonville.

Ezra, who was a shoemaker, left a widow and ten children.  In the 1870 federal census for Cohoes, Albany County, New York, his widow lives with nine of their children, and the six oldest work in a cotton mill—the youngest worker being only eleven years old.  In 1880 she is a housekeeper and six of her children still live with her, all working to support the family.  She died in 1888 at age sixty.

Historians are still arguing as to whether the high number of deaths at Andersonville were a result of incompetent prison officials, the general food shortages in the Confederate states, deliberate war crimes, or bad Confederate government policies.  But at any rate, the commandant of the camp, Henry Wirz, was court-martialed and tried for conspiracy and murder after the war, found guilty, and hanged—the only Confederate official to be tried and convicted for war crimes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sara's Letters to Her Soldier Boy

A few years ago I was able to borrow my grandma Sara Peterson’s letters to her sweetheart and future husband, Sture Wallin, written while he was in the army during WWI and she worked at a bank at home in Nebraska.  Here are some excerpts:

“Honestly, Sture, I just can’t get to feeling enthusiastic about my job down here—and if one doesn’t like your work, what is there to it?  I’d be ready to leave tomorrow—if it wasn’t war times…  Help is so scarce.  I ought to be glad I can do something, even if I don’t like it.”

“Don’t know if we can send a Christmas package.  Of course I can see where with between 1-2 million soldiers in France and everybody wanting to send them something they have to have a limit.  But I feel you are the only ones that need Christmas presents this year.”

“Dear, though I was glad as long as you were in this country, I’m glad you got your chance to go across, when you have been waiting to go for so long.  I wonder where you are—somewhere on the Atlantic.  But you must be almost across by this time...”

“Just as I got through writing the other letter to you, one of the men came in with the mail.  “Did I want a letter from overseas?” he asked.  Did I!  I’d had that letter if I’d had to knock him down to get it.  This was the first letter you had written—dated November 3.  So you did really get to France.  You can think that at least if you can’t be home this Christmas, next Christmas we’ll be sure to see you back here.”

The war ended before Sture saw any action.  But it was eight more months before he came home.

“Seems rather quiet in town today after all the excitement of yesterday.  The message came over the wires yesterday noon that Germany had surrendered.  Of course the town went wild and I guess they did all over the U.S.  They had parades and bands and the home guards out…” 

“News came this week of the death of Ernest Post.  Also James Richardson.  Also a couple of Aurora boys.  Seems so terrible at this time.  The people here all have been rejoicing at the thought of it all being ended.  But so many never gave a thought to that the casualty lists would be coming in for weeks.”

“Christmas Eve!  And such a way to spend it!  My soldier boy way across the Atlantic in France.  If I could see your dear face tonight, this would be a truly wonderful Christmas after all.  I’ve got your picture up on my dresser where I can look at it all the time... ”

“I found the place you were before on the map yesterday.  You were quite a way in France, weren’t you?  And not so far from Paris.  Perhaps you’ll have a chance to go there before you come back.”

“Do you think you will be back with the rest of Co. H?  Each of the boys that write back home seem to have a different opinion as to when they will be sent back.  They surely are sending them right along, but 2 some million are quite a few men and it took Uncle Sam several months to send them over and I guess ‘twill take just as long to come back.”

“Don’t think I’ve changed a great deal as to outward appearances.  I know I have otherwise.  What the last two years brought certainly would make some difference…” 

“The other Co. H boys came home 2 weeks ago…  Elmer said it took them 12 days to come across.  In that case if you left June 20th you would be in NY about July 2nd…  Just now all I can think of is that you will soon be here.  And I can’t tell you in words what that all means to me.  I’ll be the happiest girl in the world when you come back.”

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mystery Monday: Otto and Elsie

While researching a relative of mine—we’ll call her “Aunt Ann”—I came across the story of Otto and Elsie Iversen (his name changed).  They were Ann’s birth parents, but they were not the ones who raised her.  I figured there was a story there…

Otto Iversen was a sailor.  He was born in Bergen, Norway in 1898 and found his calling on the sea.  In this photo, Otto is the big man on the right.  He visited the port of New York, in 1920, and he must have liked what he saw.  In 1921 he came to stay, and in 1927 he became a naturalized citizen in Chicago.  It was said in the family that Otto was over six feet tall, big enough to eat a whole pie at a time, and strong enough to lift a cow over his head.   

Elsie was an immigrant, too.  She and her sister came from Germany in 1923 when they were in their twenties.  The passenger list says their destination was Chicago. 

Somehow Otto and Elsie met, and they married around 1923—but it was far from a fairy tale ending.  Elsie had a baby who died, then another baby who died, and then a third baby in 1929—a little girl they called “Ann.”  In the 1930 census little Ann lives in Chicago with her father, mother, and a boarder.  But apparently neither Otto nor Elsie wanted to raise a child.  According to the family, Elsie tried giving the baby to her sister-in-law in Iowa, but that didn’t “stick”—the family just didn’t need another mouth to feed. 

But Elsie’s sister and her husband had no children of their own, and they took Ann into their home and raised her as their own.  Ann grew up first in Chicago, then in the suburbs, and then in the country.  Her uncle was a successful tailor who provided well for his wife, niece, and a nephew they also took in. 

And what happened to Otto and Elsie?  

Elsie ran a boarding house in Chicago for many years and never took much interest in her daughter, although the two of them had a relationship when Ann was older—in fact, Ann actually cared for her mother in her own home as her mother’s health failed.  Elsie died in 1989 in New Jersey at age 93. 

Ann remembers having visits from Otto as a child.  She was always rather frightened of her father, due to his size and the fact that he was always rather shaky.  By the 1940 census Otto was a resident at the Chicago State Mental Hospital, also known as “Dunning Hospital.”  According to the family, one Sunday afternoon in 1943, he took a streetcar to visit his wife.  As he stepped off the car, he had a massive heart attack and died in the street.  He was only 44.  Ann had very few positive memories of her father, and mental illness was much misunderstood in those days.

I wondered if he was a drinker; it seemed like that would explain a lot.  So I ordered his death certificate—but it told a different tale.  It corroborated the heart attack story; the cause of death was “chronic myocarditis” and he died ten minutes after the heart attack.  But it also stated that Otto had suffered from post-encephalitis for fifteen years.  I looked up the side effects of post-encephalitis, and sure enough—a shakiness that mimics Parkinson’s.  Also common?  Mood disorders, personality changes, and mental deterioration.  Otto was the victim of a disease far beyond his control.  I was glad to be able to share with Ann a little more about her father that might explain why he couldn’t be there for her when she was young...  It’s never too late to have some closure.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Civil War Widow Applies for a Pension

Recently my subscription was about to expire.  I rarely used it, finding it hard to navigate and not very useful.  But I decided to give it one last chance to prove itself.  

I started poking around the Civil War records, since that’s their specialty.  After a few misses, I had a hit.  My husband’s great-great-grandfather Charles Alwood, who died in a Civil War camp from typhoid fever, had a wife who applied for a widow’s pension just weeks after he died.  I downloaded and printed out the 18 pages of records, and it was a gold mine!

I spent the next few hours analyzing what I’d found.  It included:
  • The Declaration, partially shown in the photo.  It was an sworn affidavit which gave a detailed background of Elizabeth and Charles, his service, his death, and their family.  Her parents were the sworn witnesses.  One thing they had to swear to was that Elizabeth “has not, in any manner, been engaged in, or aided or abetted the rebellion in the United States.”  Elizabeth had to sign all the documents with an “X”—she couldn’t read or write.
  • As proof of these facts, a letter from the Adjutant General’s Office which gave the details of Charles’ army service, from enrollment until death.  Very handy to have!
  • A letter from the Surgeon General’s Office that is the equivalent of a death certificate for Charles.  Priceless!  I’d never been able to narrow down exactly when and where he died.
  • An affidavit from Tuscarawas County, Ohio, stating the details of Charles and Elizabeth’s marriage—the equivalent of a marriage certificate, signed by a judge.
  • An affidavit from Elizabeth’s mother, stating that she was present at the birth of all six underage children being listed on the pension application.  She gave the details about each birth.  A great substitute for official birth records, which the government did not keep in the 1850s!
  • Paperwork for Elizabeth’s later application (and approval) for a pension increase; in addition to her $8 per month, she was entitled to an additional $2 per month for each child under age 16.  The children are again listed, with birth dates and dates on which they will turn 16, along with many other details.
  • A “Drop Pensioner” card which states the details of Elizabeth’s death in 1912, at which time she was receiving $12 a month.  Not a death record, but pretty darn close.  Better than anything I’d been able to find previously.

I found it interesting that, on these forms created in the middle of the Civil War, the conflict is referred to as “The War of 1861.”  I’d never heard it called that before.

So, maybe had its place in my toolbox after all...  I have written for a Civil War pension record before—to the National Archives—and it was an expensive hassle.  This was easy and free!  So, I did one more thing that day—I renewed my subscription to