One of the most popular questions on the internet these days seems to be the above question, which of course leads into the whole world of genealogical research. The seeking of answers about the who what and where, the how and why of our parents, and theirs, and theirs and theirs and continuing this backward journey as far as time, energies and resources allow us to travel.
Colleen's story is now my newest "poster child" story for the work I am doing every day and in the stories that I bring you most days of the week... well those when I'm not on a hiatus mind you.
A week ago I did not know Colleen. Today I like what I have found. Perhaps more to the point... the determination of this woman... and what she has found. And I know that she is in seventh heaven as I write this blog because she has used the internet like a giant medal detector and she got it to ring its alarm bells loud enough that they have already changed her life and that of those around her, and across North America, for those who have been following her story. I suspect there are lots of them! Her discoveries have resulted in her being swamped with emails and calls wanted more info and details on how she found her motherload. And she is getting requests for interviews like mine, and so she should!
Colleen had already done the basic research on close family relatives but decide one day not long ago to expand her knowledge of the far flung family. The subject of this blog was her search for information on her great great great grandfather. She knew his name was Walter P Johnston, that he was born at Chicago in 1849 and was supposed to have served in the Civil War. With little else to go on Colleen started her search.
Before long her medal detector started ringing. She discovered a William serving in the navy on a ship called the USS Fort Hindman. She also discovered that he was only about 15 yrs old and somehow got signed up. Knowing that the age was very low her curiosity kept her searching. She then discovered that this under-aged boy not only served, he was in a major battle and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in 1864.
Could this have been her relative? His name however was not William but Walter. But he was about that age, was from the same city and was also in the Civil War. Further work produced the fact that Walter died in 1888 and was buried in a place called LaPorte Indiana. Finding the cemetery was not all that difficult but then it was discovered that the marker was supposed to be at a place that did not seem to match the records. They seemed to be in disarray. Walks about the cemetery were fruitless... the first time.
But then it happened. Information came forth that William had a son named James. Well folks. So did Walter. And William was supposed to be buried right beside his son. So the obvious next move was to go and find the son's grave. But then again the records were of little help. They had a JANICE listed... but no James. So they wandered off to check out Janice. And sure enough, Janice must have had that sex change operation because she became a he according to the marker which had the name JAMES inscribed on it.
And right beside James's grave was another with a very old and weather beaten marker that was most difficult to read. But Colleen discovered that if you stand in front of it long enough and move about a few inches each way... the light hits the marker from different angles and the eye picks up images that are slightly different. Do this long enough and you might get the same thing Colleen did. She got a name. Yours might be different but hers was WILLIAM.
Colleen met up with a local historian by the name of Fern Eddy Shultz who, with the cemetery manager, folks from the Sons of Civil War Veterans, Gayle Alvaraz, Ray Johnston (interesting last name) and Don Morfe and others have all played roles in helping to the confirm that her suspicious were right, and the William was in fact Walter and that a long search for the unknown had just produced the startling evidence that she and her family were directly related to a Medal of Honor recipient.... a National Hero, dating back to Civil War days.
From these efforts, about a week ago an impressive ceremony was held to unveil a new marker identifying William as really being Walter and that he was indeed a war hero and had earned the MOH. There has been lots of media attention on this and lots of folks contacting Colleen and I assume the others wanting more information or simply thanking all involved for helping to bring this story forward and preserving this important military history that had been lost for well over 125 years.
Colleen and Gayle have also indicated that a well known research resource known as Fold3 had an extensive file on this fellow. So I did my own research on this and here is the enlistment document, that was supposed to have documented Walter's signing up for services on 27 May 1863 with the navy at Chicago.
At the left you see in the second column that Walter signed up for a 1 year term and with the rank of a Landsman. This is a recruit in navy lingo. If trained he would have signed up as a SEAman... ie trained at sea... not just land. Over to the right the form indicates that he was from Chicago, was 16 years old, and under "occupation" listed himself as being a labourer.
All looks fine till you learn the whole story. And much of this is in the 118 pages of documentation on this man, and the struggles of his wife after he died in an attempt to get a pension due her. The 118 pages alone are a motherload of info and Colleen struck pay-dirt with this file for the very reason that often the file is NOT on the net, or that it is limited to only a handful of pages.
But boy were there some goodies in this file!
To begin with, and I suspect unknown to Colleen, the good folks at the Medal of Honor Historical Society and others is the fact that the name is still wrong. Documents within the 118 pages clearly have a sister noting that he last name was misspelled and that he had dropped the letter "e" off the end. Perhaps an error on his part or the recruiters... or a deliberate attempt to allude anyone attempting to find him...like his family... who in fact were looking for him.
The file shows that at age THIRTEEN... not 16... he re ran away from home and joined up with the navy. He was described as being a rather large or heavy set fellow and that helped to hide his true age. One of the documents in the file was actually written by his sister at one point claiming that he was 18 on enlistment, but added in same document that he was only 13. But as we see, the document above clearly shows an age of 16, wrong that it was.
The file shows that at the beginning he was stationed on a ship called the USS Clara Dolson and then later was reassigned to the USS Fort Hindman. This later ship was commanded by Thomas SO Selfridge, a famed US Civil War officer who at an earlier date was a junior officer on the vessel USS Cumberland, of which regular readers have read in earlier blogs. The Cumberland was the first victim of the famed battle known, erroneously, as the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac in 1862.
In early 1864 the vessel operated in the Black and Red River campaigns and it would be at the Harrisburg artillery attack where Johnstone aka Johnston would earn his medal for bravery. During the attack the boat was badly damaged and had to back out of action after 27 major shell hits.
But before this, Johnstone was manning one of the powerful guns as a spounger. This is the fellow that had to push a long pole up the cannon core after each shot with a sponge on the end that would serve to clean out any foreign by-products of the last shell being shot. If this is not done when new charges are pushed down the core they could prematurely explode... a common occurrence that cost many lives in the Civil War.
Johnstone was badly hurt when an explosion almost took his hand off, but despite the injury he remained at his post when others had been killed and kept working his gun until the ship was pulled out of battle. For this he was awarded a Medal of Honor on 15 April 1864 for actions on 2 March 1864. He would have been only 14 or 15 at the time of the battle. According to his file, the medal was issued in the name of William Johnston. The correct name was Walter Johnstone and the family should take steps to have the medal reissued in the correct name, using the file as evidence.
Colleen is shown holding the flag that was presented to her during the service by one of the members of the Sons of the Union Civil War Veterans. This flag was flown over the capital at Washington DC and will no doubt remain a family heirloom from this day forth. At these ceremonies the flag is very ceremoniously folded 13 times, for reasons that can be learned by a Google search. At the service there was also an 8 man honor guard with 7 each firing 3 volleys with their muskets.
If you go to... http//www.facebook.com/photo.php?=1020143 you will see a great video of these men firing their muskets. It is loud so turn the speakers down. When you hear this noise and see the smoke and see the time it takes between shots for them to do 14 different things before being ready to fire again...and then picture a hundred or thousand of them all doing it at the same time...you can then get a little bit of an idea how confusing and noisy and smoky the battlefields were in Civil War days.
This unveiling service also included a presentation from Naval Captain C. Carter who is the Commanding Officer of the Naval NOTC program and a Prof of Naval Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Sergeant Allen James Lynch, an American hero and Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Medal of Honor for saving the lives of three of his comrades in battle also gave a talk to those attending.
The LaPointe Indiana city's Mayor Blair Milo also gave a talk and advised those gathered that the city council had proclaimed the day of June 8th 2013, the day of the service at the Patton cemetery, located in that city, as being the Walter P Johnston Day. He urged all the city to take a moment to reflect on this hero's deeds and also to recognize and honor all veterans on that day for the service that they had given...and no doubt continue to give for their city and county, their state and country.
The service was also attended by the member Ray Johnston of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the US who I suspect may have told a little of the work that he and Don Morfe and Gayle Alvaraz of our society played in the research that aided others and jointly resulted in the very ceremony he attended.
Walter left the navy after he had completed his one year term of service and returned to LaPointe, would later marry and raise children there and would set up his own business making brooms. When the factory burned down, he traveled nearbye to seek other work and passed away and the very young age of 39 in 1888 and was buried where he remains to this day.
I toured a small one room broom making plant several years ago at St Jacobs Ontario. The firm of Irvin W Hamel and Son is still in business today. No doubt the money I paid for my sample broom has now been spent, but that's OK. I still have the broom and refuse to use it for cleaning. It is a keepsake. Anyone visiting my place can attest to its never being used. hehe. The firm has a great video also on the net showing how brooms are made and is quite interesting to watch. It can be found at... www.nme.com/nme-video/youtube/id/BOlnCGTRSb8
Kudos to all who played a role in this ceremony and to the earlier family that kept pushing for what was right. And of course to the real hero of the day... Colleen. It was her search for family history that found this broom maker... who just happened to also be a National hero as well. She conducted the orchestra that resulted in Walter P Jonstone's bravery being brought forth and his true place in the military history of the United States being preserved.
Guess its time for us all to start doing our own family trees eh!
Would someone please give this woman a medal!