Shot By the Enemy

One of many forms detailing Thomas' injury in the war.
One of many forms detailing my forefather’s injury in the war.

My third great grandfather, Thomas Wilson, was about 46 years old when he enlisted in the 24th Regiment of the New York Cavalry. The document above is a form the doctor had to fill out in order for Thomas to receive government money. In my possession, I have a dozen more of his claims for an Invalid Pension spanning from 1864 to 1875. Each one has a mannequin-like diagram of a man (think Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man) with an arrow pointing to the upper right leg indicating the source of Thomas’s complaint year after year. It seems the government required him to get a physical regularly to keep his soldier’s pension.

This document says that he was wounded on July 9th, 1864. He was shot in the right thigh “splintering the bone.” On top of that it describes an exit wound just left of the pubis. Youch! The wound was “received in the trenches before Petersburg from a shot by the enemy.” I will leave you to read the rest of the gory details in the document, if you so choose. The initialism GSW, by the way, stands for “gun shot wound.” That tripped me up.

Thomas received $4 a month because he suffered from “too much lameness to allow work of more than half a day.” I’ll say. Good thing he had his wife, Emily Patterson Wilson, and his sons and daughters to help him with the farm work. His oldest son, George, also fought in the war. Mary Jane, his oldest daughter, and Ambrose, his second son, were in their late teens and unmarried at the time. His youngest children, Joanna and Emogene, were still in school.* Ambrose, by the way, is the father of Fred Wilson in the fictional story I’m writing about my family.


From the Library of Congress archives
“In the trenches before Petersburg, Virginia, 1865” from the Library of Congress archives

The Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, or the Petersburg Campaign, was an especially gruesome one and significant to the outcome of the war. Petersburg was the seventh largest city in the Confederacy at the time and a center of transportation. A third of the soldiers involved perished during the 292 days it rumbled the country. Thomas probably fought in the initial battle. I say probably because the government website lists June 15-18, 1864 as the dates of the first battle. Thomas’s record states that he received his wound 21 days later. Considering those dates, the word before in “received in the trenches before Petersburg” probably refers to geography and not time. In other words, my man suffered his wounds in the trenches that are located in the ground before one enters the city, not before the Battle of Petersburg itself.

I found a genealogy website that lists an article where Thomas is reported to have been slightly wounded on June 29th. So, that seems to suggest that Thomas was in the trenches as the initial battle raged. Given the details I’ve read of the campaign, he is lucky to have survived it.

Whether he fought in Petersburg or not, Thomas’s story is fascinating to me. If I had known when I was in school that I had a direct ancestor who had participated in the Civil War (now I know of several),  I surely would have invested in the topics I was being taught. How could I not? In my family tree alone, I have probable ties to most of the major wars, Jesse James, Eli Whitney, the Quakers, and Susannah Martin, one of the first women accused in the Salem Witch trials.  And those are just the ancestors I know about now! But now I’m getting ahead of myself; those are subjects for future posts.

I’ve often thought it would be wise to teach a little genealogy in junior high school so students could discover how their family was impacted by the historical events they learn about in class. It would help students recognize that history isn’t just about memorizing random dates and places. It would also help teachers maintain their students’ interest . . . or maybe not everyone would be as geeky about it as I am.

Not long after he was mustered out (which is olde timey military-talk for ‘released from duty’), Thomas moved his family to eastern Michigan. He lived about halfway between the towns of Flushing and New Lothrop until his death in 1883. Thankfully, despite his wounds, he lived to the ripe age of 65.*

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Thomas Wilson. I have more documentation to share. I actually edited out three more documents that directly relate to what I’ve told you so far about him. Plus I have war documents that helped me find his wife’s family, not to mention the story of how these documents landed in my hands in the first place! I just don’t want to smother you with everything I know.

I will, however, smother you with what these forms neglected to mention: Thomas’ parent’s names. In genealogical terms, that means Thomas is one of my brick walls. A brick wall in a family tree is a person whose paper trail ends abruptly. It’s frustrating to have his childhood be a dead end for me considering how much paperwork I have on his life as an adult. Other documents suggest he may have been born in 1817 in Morristown, New Jersey.* Other Wilsons and Willsons can be found living near Manchester, New York, where Thomas and his family lived before the war, but Wilson is such a common surname. I couldn’t find data on common surnames from back then, but lists it as the eighth most common last name in the country in 1990. Therefore, I don’t think I can safely assume that all of the Wilson/Willsons in the area are Thomas’s relatives. I have looked for other Wilson/Willsons in the area that were also born in New Jersey about the time Thomas was. I came up with one person: a man named Stephen Willson. Stephen was only in the area for one census and I have no idea where he moved after that. If anyone has suggestions of where I can look, please share!

Recently, I sent a friend who lives in nearby Rochester, New York, to the Genealogical Society near Manchester to look up Thomas and Emily’s marriage announcements. I was hoping there’d be something there listing his parents or his family. But no dice. (Thanks again, Kristy!)

*documentation of these facts available, just ask.


Flushing, a conflicted love note

With a title like that, this post could go a few different places, but that capital F is the proper-noun kind of capital, not the obligatory beginning-of-sentence kind.

Flushing happens to be a very pretty town cozied into the banks of the Flint River just downstream from Flint city. It is also the town in which I was born and raised. It supported a fantastic childhood and many good friendships. Before you ask, no, our high school mascot wasn’t a toilet, as rival schools often suggest. Yes, whenever I mention it without the Michigan qualifier, people assume I grew up outside of NYC and wonder why I don’t talk like Fran Drescher’s The Nanny.

Flushing's Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every summer. photo credit: lonniec61 on
Flushing’s Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every year. Photo credit: lonniec61 on
Case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a lie. Most of his family was in Flint by then, sailing across Lake St. Clair one at a time.
Another case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a fib. Most of his family was in Flint by then, having sailed across Lake St. Clair from Ontario one at a time.

When researching my family history, I geek out when I come across a record that hints at the algorithm of past decisions that led to Flushing becoming my hometown. At minimum, there were 1,024 decisions made leading to the actual event of my birth. And that’s just going back 7 generations (to about the early 1600s). Eight generations back would be 2,048 people (!) barring any kissing cousins in the tree. So let’s just say that’s the number of mothers and fathers directly involved in my, and each of our births in each of our towns in each of our countries. Even though we both know our ancestors didn’t just magically appear in the miasma of the 17th century.

Tangent aside, that means one thousand and twenty-four amazing stories had to unravel for you to be where you are sitting in your chair kindly reading this blog post. When you factor in all of their brothers and sisters, their cousins, their step-mothers, their pastors, their business partners, and the fact that there were significantly less people in the world the further back we go in time, that number really highlights how interconnected we must be.

When I actually lived in Flushing, I wanted nothing more than to leave. I was restless for getting out on my own; I didn’t feel I belonged there. We lived 15 minutes outside of town and it just seemed too quiet, like nothing interesting had ever happened there. For most adults with families the tranquility is a draw, but for a teenager (and me, still) it’s annoying to not be in the middle of things. So even though I don’t see myself ever moving back for many of the same reasons I left when I was 18, I find myself thinking about Flushing a lot. The more I research my family tree, the more I realize that Flushing and Flint are at its core. I have list upon list of records I’d like to look up there, graves I’d like to photograph, farmsteads I’d like to visit. I had no idea growing up that my history was scattered all around that little house in a field outside of town.

I thought that show was from the 90s, but judging from that outfit it must have aired in the 60s.
I thought this was a 90s tv show, but judging from that outfit and hairdo it must have aired in the 60s.

From what I’ve read, my Flushing owes a lot to The Nanny’s hometown. Back when NYC was just swampy farmland, Dutch settlers founded a town on an island that juts out into the ocean, and named it after a city that also juts out into the ocean: Vlissingen, Netherlands. When the Dutch government pulled out of the New World later, the English changed the spelling and pronunciation to something a little easier for them to say: Flushing. Later still, determined shippers dug the Erie Canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. The canal was finished in 1825. Many New York farmers living along the canal used it to move west to plots of Michigan farmland and points further west.

In addition to their belongings, the settlers also brought with them the place names they knew, just as the Dutch did before them. They named their new towns Rochester, Utica, Holl(e)y, Brighton, Troy, Gaines, Clarks(t)on; and their counties Genesee, Wayne, Livingston—all names of towns and counties on or near the Erie Canal and in eastern Michigan. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, they named a spot in the gentle dip of Genesee “valley” after the town of Flushing in New York.

So, that’s how a wounded Civil War veteran named Thomas Wilson, and his wife, Emily, ended up living near Flushing in 1870. They had packed up their things in Manchester, NY, got on a boat in the canal with their five children and moved to eastern Michigan to a large farm on the very outskirts of Flushing. Thomas Wilson, my 3rd great grandfather who passed away 95 years before I was born, was buried in Flushing City Cemetery. Those are some deep local roots. I’m planning on posting about Thomas soon. Of course I am. This is a blog about my origins and Thomas is 1/1,024 of my story.

Like Batman, Superman, the Joker, and the Hulk, we all have our origin stories. And each of our stories take place in Gothams and Kryptons – places that define who we are. They can be both our strength and our weakness, our pride and our shame. But there’s no denying that they are the source of our identity. In that way, we’re all superheroes . . . well, the heroes, at least, of our own stories.

Maybe I should start walking around wearing a cape and a tree emblem on my chest. Or not.

This postcard seems misleading. I don't remember hills that tall in my hometown. Maybe they're treetops?
This postcard seems misleading. I don’t remember hills that tall in my hometown. Well, maybe near Bueche’s, I guess. (Update: a fellow Flushingite suggested it’s the view along the river pre-Valley Golf Course. I think she’s right.)


For all you heroes out there: what were some of the best parts of growing up in your hometown?