Reading Handwriting from the Civil War

January 23rd is National Handwriting Day each year, so let’s talk about Civil War handwriting. Men who served the Union or the Confederacy were of varied educational backgrounds. Some could read and write well, but others were illiterate. The latter came from rural areas that lacked schools or where keeping the family farm going left no time for schooling.

In Daily Life in Civil War America, the statistics given were about 90% of men in the north could read and 70% in the south.

In searching for your Civil War ancestor, of course you’ll check the 1860 and 1870 census records. In 1860, one of the questions asked if the person was 20 years of age but cannot read or write. In 1870, the census separated that into 2 categories: cannot read, cannot write.

Below is a sample of Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting. Obviously he could write well with his training as a lawyer. For my Civil War ancestor, Abraham Bates Tower of Leavenworth, Indiana, I have no idea of what schooling he received, but the census lists him as able to read and write.

President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card
President Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card by famousdocuments

In our family papers is a Abraham Tower’s pocket diary that he appears to have purchased at mustering out time. The first few pages of the small book lists the men of Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. In later years, he filled the rest of the diary with family births, marriages and deaths, similar to what one sees in family Bibles.

Spencerian was the style of penmanship popular in the 1850s and 60s. Reading the handwriting of this era can be tricky with faded ink, water damage, archaic words and unfamiliar abbreviations. Here are some tips for reading Civil War letters and diaries.

There are quite a few diaries from this period available for reading online. Getting yourself familiar with the handwriting of that time is easier when you have the original and a transcription side-by-side. Here are links to Confederate, Union and also women’s diaries from the war.

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Authenticating a Photo of a Civil War Soldier

With delight, I saw a photo posted by a distant cousin on Veteran’s Day of a Civil War soldier. “It’s our grandfather Tower,” he wrote on Facebook. Wow, I’d never seen this photo before.

Then I paused and a few skeptical thoughts crossed my mind. How could I be sure that it really was our mutual ancestor who served in the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry? When I queried to be sure it was Abraham Bates Tower, my cousin said that he’s been told that it was, but “How that was authenticated, I don’t know, so I ain’t gonna swear on a stack of Bibles.”

So now I have a mystery to solve. Can I prove that it is who we want it to be? Here’s how I’ll proceed.

    • I’ll check the photo against some that I have showing him later in life. This is complicated by his having a beard in his other pictures.
    • I’ll show the photo to another distant cousin who works on the family tree. Maybe she knows more about it.
    • Could this be Abraham Bates Tower in the Civil War?

      Could this be Abraham Bates Tower in the Civil War?

    • I’ll run the photo through some Internet searches using Tineye, Google and Bing. Tineye looks for a photo to match the one you have. If the photo shows up on the web, there may be some information about who it is.
    • I’ll post the photo to a Civil War forum or a re-enators site to see what they can tell me about the uniform and the accessories in the photo.
    • I could also send the photo to the Photo Detective, Maureen Taylor. I recently heard her speak at a genealogy conference in Orlando. She has a book titled Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album and a number of others about identifying photos.
    • Another method is to post the photo online like I’m doing here, then wait for comments. If someone else claims this as their ancestor, they will contact me.

Well, it didn’t take long to find out about who was in the photo. Click the link to read about the results.

Sort Out Your Questions about Your Ancestor

It seems like for every genealogy discovery I make, I uncover another riddle or puzzle to keep me working. When I find several versions of a name, I wonder is it a misspelling? Which is the correct one and how can I find out? The same problem happens with birth dates, death dates and marriage dates.

Then there are the questions that can’t be answered by the facts listed in a census. I wonder about the way my ancestors lived, why they moved from one state to another. What happened to some family members that don’t show up in later census records? Who are the children with different names that are living with the family?

Unfortunately many of these family history questions will remain unanswered. I’m listing my puzzles here and cross my fingers. Maybe someone will stumble across them in working on their own family history. Maybe they will even have some of the answers for me. Miracles do happen.

???  Why was his 7th child, Ezakins Zacheus Tower (1875) born in Indiana when the family was living in Tyro, Kansas in 1873? Did the infant die in childbirth? I’m not finding further information about him.

??? The 8th child, Rueben Theodore Tower was born May 13, 1876 in Boone County, Arkansas. What was the family doing in Arkansas, when the previous year they were in Indiana?
UPDATE: I found online Rueben Tower’s grandson’s essay about the family. He says Civil War veterans were offered free land in Arkansas. I need to find out more about that.

??? Abraham’s 9th child, Malissa Angeline Tower was born in Arkansas in 1879, but the 10th child Emma Lillian Tower born in 1881 was in Indiana. Were they visiting in Indiana or living there again? I’ve also seen Malissa listed as Melissa which would be a more ordinary spelling.

??? Which of Nancy Angeline Tower’s sisters was living in Missouri? The family story is that she went to Missouri to stay with the sister when she thought Abraham was dead after the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads.

??? Prisoners were allowed to send letters to their family while in Andersonville. Abraham did not. It wasn’t due to illiteracy, as he kept a pocket diary after the war. Perhaps he did not have any money for stamps? Perhaps he sent a letter but it went astray due to wartime conditions. Possibly that wasn’t allowed any longer by the time he entered the prison. (I need to find out when the mail was stopped at Andersonville)

??? Prisoners were formed into groups upon arrival for purposes of roll call and food distribution. Was Abraham with other Company G comrades at this time or did they get separated as the influx of prisoners arrived?
(Strategy: make a list of Company G, 93rd Infantry soldiers in Andersonville, date of capture or arrival, died or survived)

I think I’ll get this to help me work out these questions. The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Individual Problem Analysis: A Strategic Plan (Quicksheet)

It looks very helpful in asking the right questions, looking for the right information, and so on. It’s great to have a checklist by you when taking on the big task of genealogy! Make sure you don’t miss anything important, and you know what you’re looking for!

Create a Timeline

I’m finding it very useful to assemble the dates and information that I have into a timeline. Then I can see what I have and where there are gaps. You can make one just on the Civil War years or include those with the complete timeline of your ancestor’s life.

For the time he was in the service, consult regimental histories to determine where the regiment was and what they were doing on different dates.

Here’s my example, a timeline for the life of Abraham Bates Tower.

I used Squidoo to create my timeline, but you can put it online with a blog or your own website. Be sure to back it up regularly in case anything happens to the site.

Saving your genealogy research

Saving your genealogy research

Sympathy Saturday: The Death of Your Civil War Ancestor

Did the ancestor you’re researching die during the Civil War or after the war? If you have the pension records, it will tell you when the person died. That makes it easier to check for an obituary in a newspaper in the area where they died. Luckily my mother had a copy of the newspaper clipping from her Aunt Vina.

You can also search for cemetery records. Find-A-Grave may give you additional details about the person’s life such as who their spouse was. In the case of my great-great grandfather, the information on Find-A-Grave contained a mistaken birth year.  The gravestone shows the same error.

 

Obituary for Abraham Bates Tower

The photo of the gravestone wasn’t as clear as I would like, so last fall I traveled to Tyro, KS to get my photo. I found out that my effort wasn’t any better than the volunteer’s who posted it to the web site. A tree-shaded the grave and mildew or lichen contributed to the difficulty in getting a clear photo.

The large cemetery seemed rather daunting when we arrived, but knowing what the gravestone looked like facilitated our search. We looked in the oldest part of the cemetery first.
Gravestone for Abraham Bates Tower

An older, much-weathered stone next to his was for his wife, Nancy Angeline (Long) Tower who died 21 years before him. Also buried next to him was one of his daughters, Viola Matilda (Tower) McGhee who died 34 years after her father.

Sorting Out Your Research on a Civil War Ancestor

I’ve been reading widely on the Civil War, attempting to fill in the gaps about my ancestor’s experience during those harrowing times. To keep track of what I find and to share it with others, I’m curating the information and resources on small web pages on Squidoo. The site is free to use.

So far I’ve made 36 Squidoo lenses (their term for web pages) about Abraham Bates Tower and various aspects of the War Between the States. My topics range from What Was in a Civil War Soldier’s Backpack to A Civil War Christmas. I’ll share my links here in case you are needing any of these topics.

Civil War Topics by Virginia Allain

Civil War Topics by Virginia Allain