Friday, June 12, 2009

Investigating a Family Legend

I've talked about my maternal great-great grandfather, Charles Reed, before. This time, I'm going to discuss a family legend about him, and how I went about looking into it to see if there could be any truth to it.

The legend appears on a family group sheet sent me by a Reed cousin, who got the information from another Reed cousin in a letter. The legend states that Charles Reed stopped off in Washington, D.C., to hear Lincoln's Inaugural Address on his way home from war.

Right away, with the mention of Lincoln and war, we know this must have been the Civil War. And since Lincoln's First Inaugural Address was given on 4 March 1861 and the Civil War did not start until the firing on Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, we can conclude that the reference in the legend must be to the Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1865.

Now, the question is: Where was Charles Reed on 4 March 1865? Was he indeed on his way home from the war?

The answer is in his Civil War pension file, and that answer, alas, is no. Charles Reed was in the Civil War, having enlisted in Company H, 140th Indiana Infantry, in 1862. The unit mustered out 11 July 1865 in North Carolina. Sounds like the death knell for this legend. But Charles Reed was not present at the mustering-out, having been sent home on account of illness, to Jay County, Indiana, on 30 June 1865. Ah, well. Also too late for Lincoln.

But the story doesn't end there. Digging further into the pension file, I discovered that Charles Reed had been hospitalized in early March of 1865 for typhoid fever. The dates: 1 - 13 March 1865. The place of hospitalization? According to the pension file, his treatment and convalescence for typhoid fever took place at what was called Lincoln Hospital, in Washington, D.C.

Charles Reed was indeed in the right place at the right time. Is there any way of knowing for sure if he actually did hear Lincoln speak of conciliation and peace? "With malice toward none, with charity for all?" I may never know if he actually did hear the speech, but he certainly was in the right place at the right time.

When investigating a family legend, take what facts can be pulled from them and ask questions of them. The legend I was investigating stated that Charles Reed heard Lincoln's speech in Washington, D.C. I had a time (4 March 1865, deduced from other facts, such as knowledge of the date of the start of the Civil War, and the dates of the two times Lincoln was inaugurated as President). I had a place, Washington, D.C. And I had the pension file, with information about where Charles Reed was at certain times.

When I discovered that his unit mustered out in July of 1865 in North Carolina, and that Charles Reed had been sent home to Indiana on 30 June 1865, I didn't give up. I knew by these facts where he was or wasn't on 30 June and 11 July 1865. But that didn't tell me where he was in March of that year. Only further digging into the record, looking at every scrap of paper in the file, gave me the answer which holds the possibility that the legend -- though weak on some facts in that Charles Reed was not "on his way home from war" when he heard the speech -- just might be true.

I actually have some connection to Abraham Lincoln, however tenuous, on both sides of my family. Charles Reed may very well have heard Lincoln's second inaugural speech. And a paternal great-great granduncle was a friend and correspondent of Lincoln's, both men being Illinois lawyers. One of the letters they exchanged is in the Library of Congress. More on that at another time. And on another family legend from that side of the family, also involving Abraham Lincoln, should I get a chance to look into it.

Source: Charles Reed, Civil War Pension Application File, SO 816,345, SC 697,707; Records of the Veterans Administration, Record Group 15, National Archives, Washington, D.C.


dustbunny8 said...

Good research and a gem for your family history!

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

Thank you. I think it turned out to be a neat story, even if inconclusive!