It’s January…bleary…chilly, but not frigid and we have no snow. I hear you all muttering “Global Warming” and I have to agree. Normally this is the time of year when cabin fever strikes (along with a terrible flu outbreak this year) and I take to planning my research field trips. Without a doubt it will be back to my roots in central New York. It is impossible not to ‘go home’. I am getting older and more wistful and sentimental and I find great pleasure in connecting with old friends and visiting the places of my youth. Imagine my giddiness that I can combine that with some very pithy research that invariably provides nuggets of gold to satisfy my endless craving for historical knowledge and rich subjects for my writing.
I have been daunted by the thought of researching my great great grandfathers’ Civil War experiences. It is an enormous subject matter and I guess there is nothing for it except to dive right in. I have been reading a great deal of material and been speaking with a Civil War historian or two, but it has been less than a focused, energetic effort. Last summer I contacted the Cayuga Museum to ask about what they had in their archives and discovered that they have a great deal there on the 75th and the 111th…two regiments that were formed in Cayuga County. My maternal great great grandfather, Francis J. Curry fought with the 111th and my paternal great great grandfather, David Penird fought with the 75th.
It’s been decades since I have been in the museum. I visited it constantly as a child. It was a short walk from Genesee Street Elementary School and practically a next door neighbor to West High School. In fact I took art lessons there in the summers with Dr. Walter Long in what is now called “the Lab” and after our lessons were over, I meandered about the rooms, pondering the exhibits. It didn’t matter that they didn’t change much. I particularly liked to duck into the gloom of the heavy curtained booth in the front corridor and stare at the blueish-green phosphorescent glow of the rocks in the case. That was over 50 years ago. I suppose I won’t be able to pass by the spot and not feel its spectral presence still there.
The upcoming visit won’t find me toting a bag of watercolors, pencils, brushes and pads of paper. Nor will I have a packed lunch consisting of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a jar of milk. Yes, a jar. My mother saved Hellman’s mayonnaise jars which served as my ‘thermos’ and I had to carry my lunches with great care lest I plop it down on the sidewalk in a moment of childish forgetfulness. There was one instance that I forgot and was rewarded with the sickening crunch of glass accompanied by a torrent of milk that soaked through the wax paper wrapped sandwich and turned the brown paper sack into a pulpy mess. To add insult to injury I tried to retrieve the coins for my bus trip home from the melange of glass shards, PB and J and mushy, milk sodden paper only to pierce my knuckle and add blood to the disaster. I managed to fish out the coins, wrap my finger in art paper and skulk into the art class…embarrassed, bloody and smarting. Dr. Long was a grand character…larger than life and a bit child-like himself. I had seen him sporting many a band aid and imagined he, too, had run into a Hellman’s mayonnaise jar or two in his time. Nonplussed by my wound, he cleaned it up and retrieved a band aid from his desk drawer and we were on to drawing horses. And he shared half of his sandwich and a cup of iced tea with me at lunchtime. Funny how I remember that detail to this day. I drew horses all that summer.
The Civil War material that I have on Sergeant David Penird of the “Old 75th” is rich and deep and from our family archives. GAR photos, discharge papers, letters home from his encampment days in the Deep South campaign…and an amazing GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) framed certificate of service that is almost as tall as I am. To add to this rich treasure trove, I have my research from the National Archives (NARA) and the activities of my grandmother…David’s granddaughter…in the Seward Post Auxiliary for the Sons of the Union Volunteers New York State. Sarah Leona Penird Martin Merithew Palmer…Leonie to friends and family…served as President among other functions of the Auxiliary for several years. She spoke at conventions and was honored for her service on several occasions. I never knew this about my grandmother…in fact I knew almost nothing about her except that she was married three times…she liked to read…like my father…like I do…and she died when I was four.
I just learned that the SOUV is headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and there are generous records about the GAR and the SOUV housed there. The comradeship for the “boys” that went home…the badges and ribbons and reunions…under the organization of the GAR is a touching story to tell. The war didn’t end for those soldiers at Appomattox. The fellowship remained tight and the storytelling was important…to never forget. It is certainly a part of the Civil War experience that is worth focusing on. Going home.
Of course, David’s story has been carefully kept with his personal effects being handed down to each male heir and we are all fortunate to have found each other and put his story together.
However, Francis “Frank” Curry’s Civil War story can only be told by a few disparate records that I have uncovered in my research and the bronze GAR star that still sits with his gravestone. Fortunately, I purchased a beautifully researched and written book, “The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry” by Martin W. Husk, a descendant of Major Lewis Husk. His very first paragraph grabbed me and I was swept away by the image of my hometown on August 21, 1862.
Just over 1, 000 men resplendent in military dress stood in formation before the Western Exchange Hotel in Auburn, New York. An intense August sun beat down as dust from their recent march through town settled on the soldiers’ new uniforms. In front of them was a raised platform, festooned in red, white and blue bunting. New York’s governor Edmund Morgan and Colonel Jesse Segoine, along with other leading citizens from New York’s Finger Lakes region, sat atop the dais and gazed with admiration upon the volunteers. Thousands of onlookers pressed in on the formation, searching for the familiar face of a loved one. They all listened intently as Governor Morgan delivered an eloquent speech on such an auspicious occasion.
Martin’s research is impeccable and inspiring and he and I have had an exchange or two over the last year as I formulated how I would go about the business of researching the 111th and Private Francis J. Curry. When he told me about his findings at the Cayuga Museum, it was such a thunderbolt. Of course! Professor Long was in love with Cayuga County history and it would be unthinkable that there would be no archival Civil War information housed there. The biggest concern was the fire that occurred at the museum quite some time ago. I still remember the volunteers bringing books and papers out into the sunshine. Water soaked and wilting, each leaf…each tender paper…was carefully dried in the central New York sun. When I spoke with the museum’s curator, she told me that most all has been rescued though not precisely catalogued or indexed…a work in progress. The research will require time and patience.
My bag this time will be a backpack filled with my laptop, a digital camera and hand scanner, an iPhone and a notebook.
Perhaps I should pack a sandwich….and a band aid…just in case.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher