Tag Archives: Civil War

Our roots and their keepers

Another box to look through as we declutter. This one sat in the basement, out of sight and definitely out of mind, since we moved in 14 years ago. The weight tells me it’s either very important or something once important, now useless.

Inside is a magnificent old family history book, 1,315 pages long, published in 1883 by an ancestor of my father and given to him, according to the inscription in the flyleaf, at Christmas in 1937. I’ve seen this before, but also in the box is an envelope containing two sheets of paper that I never read or even knew existed: “Will of Adin Swan of Rome, N.Y.”

It’s a transcription of the original document, probably typed up by my Aunt Rowena, the family historian. It reads like a typical will: Considering the uncertainty of this mortal life and being of sound mind and memory, Blessed be Almighty God for the same, do make and publish this my last will and testament. But when I saw the name Adin Swan, my heart beat faster as I sat there staring at the papers, trying to fully absorb what I was holding in my hands. For these are the last known words of a man who fought in the Revolution.

According to Ro’s research, Adin joined the Continental Army at the age of 14 and spent most of his service in Rhode Island. Like many people in those times, he had a large family: I give to my oldest son George Swan and Philander Swan and William Swan and Alonzo Swan and Edwin A. Swan and to their heirs forever all my real and personal estate…and the furniture that my wife Martha leaves at her decease is to be equally divided between my daughters Polly Brainard and Ann Mosely and Palmire Rudd.

Twenty years after Adin’s death in 1842, his grandsons, George Swan’s sons, would join the Union Army and one would die in Louisiana. My own grandfather, Hoyt Swan, was born in 1879, just fourteen years after the Civil War ended. Now I sit here in 2016, reading First I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Martha Swan during her widowhood…

Thanks to Ro, who took the time to find, copy and file away the will, Adin and the early life of our still young country are no longer remote or abstract, but close and very real. Blessed are the genealogists, the librarians like my amazing wife, the archivists, and all of those who preserve our collective heart and soul, from inaugural addresses to postcards, cassette tapes, and floppy discs. (If you don’t know what cassettes and floppies are, ask your parents. They’re really not as clueless as you think.)

In this hyperactive, here-one-second-and-gone-the-next digital age, the tasks of preservation and organization must be harder than ever. I’m certainly not vain enough to think anyone will be reading this blog in 174 years, the age of Adin’s will. But I hope we leave something tangible, so if humankind is still around in 2190, someone whose world we can only dream about will still have the thrill of opening the envelope.

Will of Adin Swan.



If you have a TV or computer, and a soul, you’ve probably seen and been touched by the poppies around the Tower of London, honoring all the Commonwealth dead of the First World War. We can think about war in the abstract all we want, but like the names on the Vietnam Memorial, these simple bits of ceramic remind us that those who fight and suffer are individuals like ourselves. So on Veterans Day, I’m thinking about one such man – Clark Swan, my great-great uncle on my father’s side, and to my knowledge the only member of my family to die in our country’s wars.

Clark grew up on a farm in Ringwood, Illinois, northwest of Chicago and just south of the Wisconsin line. After the Civil War broke out, he joined the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which mustered into service in September of 1862, soon became part of Grant’s army, and the next year took part in the siege and capture of Vicksburg. However, Clark died before the battle, of disease, at a camp in Louisiana, at the age of 21. According to the records my aunt uncovered, he was a “teamster,” part of Grant’s ill-fated effort to dig a canal that would alter the course of the Mississippi so his troop transports could bypass the Confederates’ big guns.

I don’t know much else about Clark’s service. But thanks to a generous distant relative on Ancestry.com, I have a wonderful artifact of the war years on the home front: “The Diary of Miss Hattie Alexander,” kept by a friend of the family.

September 12, 1862, Friday – Wednesday 10th. We all went to an excursion to Rockford, to see the 95th boys. They are in camp there, quite a crowd went. We had a gay time, nearly every body around here was there.

November 6th, 1862, Thursday – Tuesday the 95th Regiment past through Woodstock. I went down to the depot to see them. I saw Moses, Nathan, Jimmy, Wray Clay, Cousin Ed Warner and Tom Blakeslee, and also Spencer Ward and Frank Springer.

November 16th, 1862, Sunday (during a visit to Sheboygan, Wisconsin) – They were drafting in Wisconsin last Monday (a good deal of excitement). In Milwaukee the city had to call on two regiments to subdue the people who resisted the draft. In Port Washington the people alonzonewresisted the draft, raised a mob and tore down 6 or 7 houses. When our boat stopped there, the mob rushed down expecting to meet some of the Milwaukee soldiers, but we had none on board.

May 22nd, 1863, Friday – Anna Swan staid here last night. Eugene called here Monday. Their brother Clark is dead. He died the 19th of April at Lake Providence. The 95th Regiment I suppose are in the fight before Vicksburg.

June 12th, 1863, Friday – I pity the poor soldiers in the last battle, Moses Frazier, Jim Walsh, Lieuts Wetmour and Walker, Capt. Cook and Mr. Marvin and John Purdy were wounded. Henry Kerr and Webster Ryan were killed….Since I commenced writing I heard that Capt. Cook and John Purdy had died of their wounds or from the effects of their wounds.

June 14th, 1863, Sunday – Today I went to the funeral of D. Webster Ryan. The church was crowded. Friday night John Purdy’s body was brought home, and last night Capt. Cook’s body came in on the cars. He was buried at 10 o’clock in the evening with military honors and under the Masonic order. It seems solemn to think that so many of our boys that were with us one year ago are now dead, and many of them are wounded and lie suffering in the southern hospitals.

The Rebels have marched into Pennsylvania, 10,000 of them, I believe. I do wish this cruel war was over.

The march into Pennsylvania was the prelude to Gettysburg, and the war would continue for almost two more years. Hattie, who was just 16 and 17 years old when she wrote the passages above, eventually married Clark’s brother Eugene.

Clark and the other Union dead were reinterred at Vicksburg after the war. However, their original graves at Lake Providence had wooden markers, and times were so desperate that the local people took them for firewood. He and his comrades are now among our many unknowns. Unknown, but never to be forgotten.