My Wife Calls This a “God Wink”

11 12 2011

I prefer to use the words of the Zen philosopher Leon Spinks: “Freaky Deaky.”

This is a little convoluted, so bear with me.

A few years ago I learned (from a total stranger via a gen group for the Smeltzer line) that my great-grandfather, John B. Smeltzer, served in the 205th PA Infantry and was wounded during the Petersburg breakthrough in 1865. You see, most of my family, if we’re interested in genealogy at all, have always focused on my mother’s side of the family, I think because her father was from Ireland and we have always identified ourselves as “Irish”. We went to the Irish school and the Irish church (as opposed to the German, Polish, Italian, Croatian, or Greek churches and schools in our little town). Yes, with a name like mine that has required a lot of explanation over the years, but my dad was in fact president of our local AOH, and I have the throne from the now defunct group in my garage right now to prove it.

Given my interest in the Civil War, this was pretty cool news to me. I haven’t done much other than get his pension file from NARA (for some reason I forgot to order his service record) and locate his grave in Vicksburg Cemetery in Roaring Springs, PA – though I have yet to visit it (UPDATE – good thing I didn’t visit, as he is actually buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Hopewell, PA, Bedford County.) I learned from the gen group that John was born in 1846, his father’s name was Joseph and his mother was Susan. He had, IIRC, four siblings. It looks like he signed up when he turned 18. Later in life, he suffered from pretty much the same physical maladies as do I. Weird how that works.

OK, fast forward a few years and here’s where it gets freaky.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Milann Ruff Daugherty. She had found a collection of her great-great-uncle’s letters and published them, and wanted to know if I’d be so kind as to review the book here. I informed her, as I inform everyone, that if it was a novel I was not interested, but if it was truly non-fiction and Civil War focused I’d be happy to take a look, and at worst I’d give it a preview. Not long after, Your Affectionate Son: Letters from a Civil War Soldier arrived in the mailbox. I glanced through it and noticed that, while the letters had some good stuff, the letters that have the really good stuff, written before, during, or just after big engagements, were missing (or, less likely, had never been written: really, how affectionate could a son be if he didn’t write home after a battle, if only to let his folks know he was OK?). So I put it aside with the intent of writing said preview when I had the time.

Jump forward about a week. I received an unrelated email from my good buddy and battlefield stomping pard Mike Pellegrini:

Hope all is well with you and your family. Found something on that might interest you, see attachments for JB Smetlzer. On another note, why haven’t you mentioned your other CW ancestors, one being buried at Antietam NMP Cemetery?

Huh? I too subscribe to, but simply haven’t had the time to use it much other than to trace down various individuals about whom I write. Really haven’t done anything much with my own family. So I responded to Mike that the reason I never told him was that I never knew. I got this in return:

John Smeltzer’s wife Hannah Virginia Gates had a few brothers: James Gates Co F, 8 PA reserves aka 37th PA died of wounds 16 Oct. 1862 at Smoketown or he died during the battle depending which web site you want to believe and is buried in the Nat Cemetery.

I know a little about Antietam (since I’m on the board of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation I better know a little), and recognize Smoketown as a place where many Union wounded were sent after the battle to recover. Or, as in the sad case of James Gates, to not recover. A quick web search turned up this photo of his headstone, for the above use of which I thank Sharon Murray.

My great-great-uncle James Gates is buried in grave #3717 in Antietam National Cemetery. When I saw this photo I was immediately reminded of something my father said on occasion. His father, John’s son, was named Harry Gates Smeltzer. My father’s mother’s maiden name was Dorr. So my dad quipped, “My father was a Gates, my mother was a Dorr, and I was the Grand Slam.” OK, you had to be there.

Mike hepped me to a little more info on my Gates ancestors:

The Gates family goes way back. I saw a Rev war soldier and it looks like the town of Gatesburg was named for them: it’s out by State College [PA].

Damn, can you imagine me as an SAR? Or my sisters walking into a DAR meeting? I’d PAY to see that! I mean, I suspect that I was perhaps descended from a Rev War soldier, but always thought it most likely would have been from one of the Hessians who stayed here after the war (yes, a couple of them were Smeltzers).

The last little tidbit is even better. I asked Mike if any of my great-grandfather Smeltzer siblings were in the war:

JBS did not have any soldier siblings, but there appears to be a step brother KIA at South Mountain, William Harker Co. E 8th PA Reserves.

[Hmmm…there’s that regiment again. Maybe this explains how John B. met Hannah! Wait a minute – step brother?]

When I started looking for siblings I found JBS living with a Miller family in the 1850 & 60 census, so I thought maybe he was orphaned. Next I tried looking at some existing family trees that were posted and here’s what I found: Joseph Smeltzer [my great-great grandfather] married Susan Barley and they had 5 children before she passed about 1850 (then i saw the Joe S and  2 kids living with the Strayer family & JBS with the Miller’s on the same 1850 census page)   I guess splitting up the kids with different families was common when the mother of young children passed so the father could still go to work, that happened in my family when one of my great grandmothers died.  Joe then married Mary Ann Harker (who had 4 kids of her own). Joe & Mary went on to have 6 more kids. It was like the Brady Bunch on steroids!  So it looks like you have hundreds of relatives.

Wow. I’m really indebted to Mike for all this info.

So, I think so far you’ll agree this has been freaky, right?

But I also promised you deaky.

Something about the 8th PA Reserves struck me as familiar, and I looked down to my right as I was typing away during these exchanges and saw Your Affectionate Son. And wouldn’t you know, Millan Ruff Daugherty’s great-great uncle James Cleaver was a lieutenant in the 8th PA reserves (AKA 37th PA Volunteer Infantry, but the Reserves were a proud bunch and liked to go by their Reserves unit number – add 29 to the Reserves number and you get the PAVI number). Not only that, he was in Company F, my great-great uncle’s company. James’s name appears in a roster in the back of the book.

Now, that’s deaky, which makes this whole thing Freaky Deaky.

Stay tuned – more to follow. Your Affectionate Son will be getting a closer look than I at first thought.

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14 responses

11 12 2011
Robert Moore

Good stuff, Harry. Personally, I find such things more than coincidences. Usually unexpected (but certainly welcome) surprises, and a few of my own (ancestor and non-ancestor, but,usually, both centering on Civil War research) have happened over the past 25 years or so.

11 12 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks, Robert.

11 12 2011
Robert Moore

By the way, was surprised that neither James Gates (at least, no pic of his stone as yet) or John B. Smeltzer (no entry whatsoever) have yet to be entered into Find-a-Grave

12 12 2011
Jim Morgan


Is that the Twilight Zone theme I hear playing in the background?

12 12 2011
Harry Smeltzer

It might be, Jim!

13 12 2011
Will Hickox

That’s some interesting story! To my mind, stories like yours of uncovering ordinary but fascinating individuals in the family tree are much more interesting than bragging by DAR types about their distinguished lineages going back to the Mayflower. A couple of similar incidents happened to me. At the library I once opened a book of a Civil War surgeon’s letters at a random page–only to read him praising my g-g-g uncle, a hospital steward serving in an entirely different army corps. Another time I bought a book of another soldier’s letters and diary. In the latter, he mentioned having the sad duty of writing to the wife of his friend who had died of disease. Several years later, my research revealed that the man who died was my g-g-g-g grandfather. Small world.

13 12 2011
Will Hickox

I also remember reading in Military Images magazine of a collector who dug up a Pennsylvania soldier’s ID badge. It turned out he owned a CDV of the man, wearing the same badge.

14 12 2011
Susan Evelyn McDowell; Cole

It might seem freaky deaky but when I found my Civil War ancestors and some of the parallel medical symptoms, it actually led to funding fo research in that medical area. Good job Harry.

14 12 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Susan!

13 02 2012
Rick Wherley

Milann Daugherty has indeed done a number of people a favor by publishing James Cleaver’s letters. Years ago I found an old manuscript detailing my wife’s great grandfather’s Civil war experiences. His name was John B. Tobias. As it happens he enlisted with company F, 37th PA, the 8th Reserves. Even though it was written 40 years after the war it had a few interesting tidbits, particularly about his wounding at Fredericksburg. Even later I made a copy and gave it to the Park Service in Fredericksburg thinking it might be of some limited value to a future researcher. Every once in while I would google John Tobias’ name to see if something new would come up. Then, this past fall, the web site for Milann’s new book popped up. It listed a number of soldiers who were mentioned in Cleaver’s letters. John Tobias was one of them. I received the book as a Christmas present from my wife and am thoroughly enjoying reading about James Cleaver’s experiences as they must have related to my wife’s great grandfather.

John Tobias must have had a very interesting life in the service. Three years with the 8th Reserves, captured and incarcerated at Libby and Belle Isle prisons after Mechanicsville, exchanged, saw action in 5 major battles, wounded at Fredericksburg, sent home to recruit for his regiment, mustered out, signed up again, guarded Confederate prisoners at Ft. McHenry, mustered out and signed up again, serving into 1866. He was present as a guard at the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators and came home with a remnant of the rope and scaffold that hung Mary Surratt.

13 02 2012
Harry Smeltzer

Great story, Rick. Thanks for sharing.

13 03 2013
Milann Daugherty

Rick, I have been away from the blog for a while and just saw this. I appreciate knowing more about John’s service which was indeed extensive. It also says much about him that he was sent home as a recruiting officer. Did you find his obituary in the Bedford Gazette? So glad you enjoyed the book. Thanks and hope to see you on the book’s Facebook page. Regards, Milann

22 02 2012
Previews Coming « Bull Runnings

[…] me access to the park’s file on the 8th PA Reserves. What I found in that file pertaining to my great-grandmother’s brother was startling. Fantastic, in […]

18 04 2012
Chasing Relatives « Bull Runnings

[…] Son: Letters from a Civil War Soldier, from its author, Milann Ruff Daugherty. I wrote about it here. As you read (if you followed the hyperlinked “here”), at about the same time I […]

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