A search for family history

This Friday, I’m giving a talk on “Telling Our Stories” at the monthly meeting of the Greene County Historical Society.

It’s a broad and forgiving topic, since I have a lot of latitude on how to deal with the subject. One of the angles in my presentation will be the tremendous advantages the Internet affords for seeking out information about family ancestors.

One of the personages I’ll talk about is my wife Kathy’s great-great-uncle, Martin Mersen, the uncle of Kathy’s grandmother.

Kathy’s family lore about Martin, up until a few months ago, was that he fought in the Civil War, lost a leg, was taken prisoner and died at the notorious Confederate prison of Andersonville. That was all that had come down through the generations.

But we were planning an auto trip to Fort Myers Beach for a week in the Florida sun in early March, and Kathy thought it might be possible to do some research on Mr. Mersen, even to find out where he had fought and maybe where he was buried.

So last June, she enlisted the help of son Matt, who is several quantum leaps ahead of us in Internet savvy, to see if he could take the lead on Mersen research.

Matt logged onto Ancestry.com and found an awesome store of information about Kathy’s great-great-uncle.

I’ve supplemented it with background about times and locations of his brief life.

Martin Mersen’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Holland in 1849, when Martin was 6. They settled near Milwaukee. The Civil War broke out 12 years later, and Martin, like hundreds of thousands of young men on both sides, enlisted for military duty, in his case with the 22nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, E Company, on Aug. 21, 1862.

He was 18 years old, and had been a United States resident for only a dozen years.

The regiment (about 900 men strong) was organized at Camp Utley in Racine, not far from Milwaukee, and mustered into active duty on Sept. 2, 1862. The Wisconsin 22nd then fought for the next 2½ years under the command of various Union generals.

At Little Hayseth, Tenn., a Confederate force surrounded the unit, forcing it to surrender on March 25, 1863. A month later, the regiment was returned to the Union in an exchange of prisoners, promptly reorganized at St. Louis on May 3, and went back into battle again in Tennessee and Georgia.

As part of the Army of the Cumberland under Union Gen. George H. Thomas, the Wisconsin 22nd moved southward through southeastern Tennessee with Sherman’s push toward Atlanta in late 1863 and early 1864.

The campaign included the massive battle at Chickamauga, where many thousands of men on both sides gave their lives, and thousands more a limb or two.

(An aside: Greene County soldiers fought alongside their Wisconsin brethren under Sherman in Tennessee and Georgia. Sherman’s troops, and Confederate units under generals Johnston and Hood, skirmished and maneuvered southward from Tennessee toward Atlanta for several months. One of the battles, fighting for control of the rail line at Allatoona Pass, Ga., found Greene County men in the thick of the fighting along with Wisconsin troops.)

At a location with the sadly ironic name of New Hope Church, a little northwest of Atlanta, Martin Mersen’s left leg was horribly mangled, likely by canister or grapeshot from Rebel artillery, and had to be amputated.

He and 349 other Union solders were taken prisoner at New Hope Church on May 25, 1864, thereby avoiding the fate of being killed in action that befell 703 of his fellow Union soldiers in that battle.

But Martin and the other prisoners were marched 171 miles south to Andersonville, where he, like hundreds of other Union prisoners, died.

In Martin’s case, it was from his wound; others at the open air prison would perish from starvation or disease or from their own wounds under horrific conditions.

His death came 18 days after his capture, on June 12, 1864, at about 21 years of age, about two months short of exactly 150 years ago.

In all, 243 of the 900 troops of the Wisconsin 22nd died in the Civil War, about a third killed outright or as a result of wounds, and the other two-thirds from disease.

That was about average for casualties on both sides — somewhere around 30 percent of the total  number of men who fought in the war were casualties, either killed or wounded.
Back to Martin Mersen.

Matt found through his research that Martin was buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery, Section EE, Site 11368. So our trip to Florida included a stop in Chattanooga, where we found the cemetery in an out-of-the-way location in the north part of that city.

The grass had greened by then, and the spacious layout rivaled Arlington National Cemetery in its impressive appearance.

A quick stop at cemetery headquarters yielded directions to Section EE, and a 15-minute walking search led us to Martin Mersen’s grave.

It is marked by a small, white headstone with his name and regiment engraved on it, one of the thousands of men (and some spouses) so memorialized at Chattanooga. The rows of stones seemed to go on forever.

Kathy is quite certain that no one from her family had ever visited the site.

No family member, to her knowledge, even knew where the grave was located. It was a sobering experience to stand there, on a beautiful afternoon, and contemplate the cost in human lives tallied by the Civil War.

The Wisconsin 22nd was nicknamed “The Abolitionist Regiment.” That’s appropriate — at the start of the war, the North’s objective was solely to preserve the Union. But as the years went by, Union sentiment gradually came around to the additional goal of the abolition of slavery.

President Lincoln reflected exactly that progression in his own thinking.

By the time Grant had captured Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Sherman was taking Atlanta, Lincoln had already freed the slaves in Southern areas under Union control through the Emancipation Proclamation, had delivered the anti-slavery Gettysburg Address and was firmly committed to ending the practice of ownership of one human being by another in a reunited America.

That goal, for Kathy and me, ennobled Martin Mersen’s supreme sacrifice, and the innumerable similar sacrifices of his brethren in arms.

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