Mike Kent

Mike Kent.

Being involved in the Civil War industry since 1992, I am often asked if I have ever traced my Civil War roots. Before last year,  my answer had always been no. At the beginning of 2015, I made my annual bucket list of things to accomplish in the coming year, and one of my goals was to research my family tree in hopes of finding a distant Confederate relative I could claim for membership in my local SCV camp. For many years, I wondered where my family had come from and what type of military heritage they had. 

Aside from my father, W.L. Kent, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, my family history was sparse. A story had been handed down from my grandfather about his great uncle who fought for the Confederacy and walked home to Georgia from Virginia at the end of the war where even his own family did not recognize him, but this was only a tale which had never been substantiated. I made up my mind to trace my family tree to prove this story true or false once and for all.

As a complete novice to the field of genealogical research, all I had to start with was a group photograph of some family members dated 1905 with names handwritten on the back and a subscription to Ancestry.com. I was now all set to key in some basic information, get a “leaf” as shown on TV and begin to unlock the secrets of the Kent family! Imagine my surprise when I entered my name, my father’s name with birthday and place of birth and my grandfather’s birthday and place of birth and up popped several leaves! There on my computer screen were names I did not recognize but were obviously my great grandfathers and great grandmothers.

Clicking on each name brought up more information on the selected individual such as birth date and place, parents names, spouses names, siblings, date of death and place of burial. With each name, I was also shown a list of suggested records for further research. The suggestions included Federal Census Records, Marriage Certificates, property records, death notices and military service records. Now I was really onto something! I stayed up half the night furiously tapping my computer keys and waking my wife every 30 minutes or so to regale her with my latest finds.

As I suspected, most of my ancestors were poor, uneducated farmers with large families, primarily from Georgia and Alabama. Some could not even read or write, and their net worth as recorded in the federal census was often less than $500. No ancestor ever owned a slave as far as I could determine. Although Ancestry.com was a treasure trove of genealogical information about my great grandfather and great-great grandfather, it did not give me the military background and details I desperately sought. My great-great grandfather Isiah Kent did not serve during the Civil War, but had several younger brothers, Absalom and John Gilbert Harris. Could these relatives have joined for the cause? I quickly entered Absalom R. Kent into my family tree and clicked onto his information. There under additional suggested records to research was a source entitled Alabama Civil War Soldiers 1860-1865.

With trembling fingers I clicked on the source and up popped an entire page for my great-great uncle Absalom R. Kent. According to the Ancestry.com records, he enlisted in Chambers County, Alabama in January 1862 at age 17. He joined Company G of the 37th Alabama Infantry as a private and served until he was wounded at Missionary Ridge and never returned to service. This was the Holy Grail I had been searching for!

At long last, here was a lineal family ancestor who was documented as serving the Confederacy during the Civil War and was even wounded in battle! I was now officially hooked but wanted to know more about Absalom Kent from a military standpoint; where did he fight, how did he sustain a wound, what happened to him after the war? For this information, I would have to dig a little deeper and, fortunately, there was another website there to help me in the form of Fold3.com.

Fold3.com is a military based genealogical website documenting the service and other activities of U.S. service men and women back to the Revolutionary War. While Ancestry.com merely states a few facts concerning an individual’s military career, Fold3.com compiles all available military records in chronological order and provides the ability to view the record on screen and download copies for your files. It is easy to research as you type in the period you are researching (Civil War, World War II, etc.), state your ancestor was from, unit if known and name.

Fold3 will indicate how many printed documents exist and lay them out in chronological order that you can scroll through, zooming in and out as needed and increasing or decreasing contrast for best viewing. For purposes of Civil War research, common documents seen include muster rolls, pay slips, hospital admittances, wounded and capture reports, prisoner of war rolls, amnesty papers, letters and pension documents. While some individuals may only have a few documents listed, others may have 20-30 or more documents, depending on their rank, activities and time in service. I found it utterly fascinating to look at a copy of a document signed by my ancestor over 155 years ago and wonder what his life was like during this period in American history. Although I never found that relative that supposedly walked home from Virginia after the war, I did find many far more interesting stories associated with my relatives. After searching for that one Confederate soldier that would allow me entry into the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I came up with a total of 14 paternal and maternal relatives that fought for the South.

These valiant volunteers died at Vicksburg, were wounded at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga, captured at Gettysburg and Missionary Ridge, suffered at Point Lookout and came back home to families and loved ones a changed man forever. Their stories were those of common men called to uncommon acts of valor with little reward other than the satisfaction of knowing they served a cause they believed in and were willing to die for. Even though I have visited many Civil War battlefields where my ancestors fought, I now long to revisit them with new insight and walk among the Confederate lines where they fought and died.

A final resource to utilize in tracing your family tree is www.Findagrave.com. This website is powered by volunteers who have photographed tombstones, cemetery plots, obituaries and other information on the deceased. It is only fitting after researching a person’s birth, life and death that the final chapter be closed with an appropriate marker or tombstone.  

As a novice genealogist, I made many mistakes in my initial foray into the field and would like to share some of those missteps to save others considerable time and effort. First, don’t get overwhelmed and carried away by the first few relatives you run across. If you are searching for Civil War contacts, you will have to go back four generations to arrive at the proper time frame for individuals 15 to 60 years old during the period of 1861–1865. This would translate into a minimum of 16 family lines taking into account both paternal and maternal family trees. It is common to jump from family to family as you go back in time as some trees are simply easier to trace due to more thorough records. Resist this urge and follow one family name all the way back to the Civil War or until the trail ends. This way you can ascertain all known facts about a particular family tree before moving on to another one.

Secondly, print off a copy of every document you run across. You may not think it is an important piece of information at the time, but sooner or later you will need it to fill in a gap or jog your memory as you cross family trees, and I can guarantee you will never be able to find it again after you pass on it!

Lastly, make a file folder with every family members name on it and save every document you come across. Some individuals may only have one or two documents while others may have dozens of pages. This will come in handy as you put together a complete family tree and makes it much easier should you ever decide to publish a family history.

In a nutshell, you have a beginner’s tutorial on how to get started researching your Civil War ancestors. If you are a history buff interested in the Civil War (and I assume you are if you are reading Civil War News – the best publication in the industry), finding and documenting your ancestor’s military service should be the next obvious step in your Civil War education. Happy Hunting! 

About the author

Mike Kent is President of MK Shows, LLC, http://www.mkshows.com/, promoters of the Nashville & Dalton Civil War shows as well as gun shows in North and South Carolina. He holds degrees from both Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. He can be contacted at Mike@MKShows.com.

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