How to write your family history, part 4: forget the royals!

Genealogists often fixate on inducing certain results, such as establishing a family’s lineage back to European royalty or American Revolution participation.  Finding links to historical events and famous individuals can change our perspectives on who we are.  Along the way, though, most genealogists ignore the rich history of “ordinary” relatives’ lives.  Ignoring these stories is tragic.

Among the most impressive genealogical findings are the obscure stories of relatives’ accomplishments, difficult decisions, near-death experiences, and triumphs over adversity.  These stories don’t come easily.  They’re often deeply hidden in the pages of a forgotten local history book, or they’re only obliquely discoverable by poring over multiple texts and connecting the dots.  Sometimes these stories are never written down and we have to painstakingly coax them from a living generation’s memories.  But they’re always worth the effort.

Among our favorite stories is the Maddox family‘s experience in the Civil War.  A curious story has been passed down the generations – a story we originally thought was impossible.  The legend was that three Maddox brothers – who had fought on both sides of the Civil War – gathered in an Illinois farmhouse some years after the war and talked of their experiences. One brother explained that his unit had been chasing a Confederate unit and finally caught up with them.  In a pitched battle, he had taken aim at a cavalryman atop his horse and shot at him, but missed and instead killed the horse. Later in the battle he saw the same cavalryman who had found another horse. Determined, the brother took aim at the cavalryman again and fired his rifle, only to kill the cavalryman’s second horse. The cavalryman then disappeared in the confusion of the battle.

Hearing this story, one of the other Maddox brothers rose from his chair and exclaimed, “You son of a b****, that was me!”

The story demanded some research.  We came to learn through muster rolls and pension records – easily available on and –  that Joseph Jefferson Maddox had enlisted as a cavalryman with the Union 3rd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, and his brother Benjamin Wesley “Wes” Maddox had enlisted with the Confederate 10th Cavalry Regiment, of Morgan’s Raiders. Colby Stevenson Maddox enlisted with the Union in Illinois, and a fourth, William, enlisted in the Union and died in the war. If the storytelling actually occurred in that Illinois farmhouse, then Joseph, Wes and Colby were the men telling stories.

A depiction of Morgan’s Raiders in Harper’s Weekly, 1863.

When we first heard the story, we knew little of Morgan’s Raiders – Wes’s unit – and not many Americans do. Their wartime operations, mostly in 1863, were largely an attempt to draw Union forces from their strategic objectives, and are obscured by the enormity of the war’s other events at the time. In the east, Union General Meade had defeated General Lee at Gettysburg on July 13, causing unrecoverable personnel losses. To the west, Major General Grant had defeated the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg by July 4, thus disrupting the Confederacy’s critical Mississippi passage. The Union then committed to eliminating General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry, who was increasingly making a mockery of Union control of the Ohio region. A victory over the elusive Morgan’s Raiders – who had been showcased in popular Northern newspapers as marauding bandits – would demonstrate that the South had lost its freedom of movement. The North could claim some rule of law in the Ohio region.

Modern tacticians would call Morgan’s Raiders guerrillas. They moved swiftly, with little heavy equipment, and made no permanent gains. Their task was to harass local militias and civilians and to draw the greater Union force into the most difficult type of warfare. After previous successes in Kentucky, in June 1863 Morgan led his troops on a 1,000 mile offensive – called the “Great Raid” – from southern Kentucky through Indiana and into southern Ohio.

Morgan’s Raiders were emboldened by frequent small victories early in the Great Raid, but by July 9, the Raiders – including Wes’s unit – were being closely pursued by a strong Union force, including the cavalry unit that great-great Uncle Joseph belonged to, according to battlefield histories. Joseph certainly would have known that he was pursuing his own brother’s unit. There would have been ample opportunity for the kind of sniping described in the brothers’ war stories. So the fantastic family legend may have some truth to it. But it was at the Buffington Island Ford, near Portland, Ohio, that the brothers would have a run-in of Shakespearean proportions.

We do not know exactly what happened. We know from partial war journals that the Union pursuit of Morgan’s Raiders reached its peak on July 19. The men on both sides were ragged, stinking, overheated and exhausted after a week of sleepless horseback pursuit. The Raiders slowed as they attempted to cross at a ford over the Ohio River toward the relative safety of West Virginia, and the Union cavalry and a gunboat opened fire on them. Over 700 Raiders were captured by Joseph’s unit. Among those captured was Joseph’s own brother, Wes.  As a result of his brother’s actions, Wes would spend the last two years of the war in one of the most atrocious prison camps of the war – Camp Douglas in Chicago, where one in five prisoners died of disease, famine, cold or abuse.

There are many stories of families splitting over the Civil War, but there are few of brother fighting brother in a battle.  It’s the kind of historical narrative that should make us sit up in our chair, and it beats most claims of European royalty somewhere down the line.  But too often, stories like this one are denied their place in our family histories because we don’t take the time to dig into the seemingly pedestrian lives of our quietest ancestors.  They deserve better.

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