Decoration Day: Why Family History Writing will make you a Better Genealogist

I can hear you mumbling, but I hate writing. That may be because you think it hard work. Maybe if you had to start out staring at a blank piece of paper or a white screen, but if you are a genealogist that isn’t the case. You have the rough outlines of hundreds if not thousands of ancestors. When you decide to write about someone in your tree and all you have is the rough outlines of their lives, it’s going to take some work to research more than names dates and places. The writing part is much easier than the research. It’s when you set out to write that you find out what little you know.

The title of this piece is taken from a mention in Lulu’s diary of Decoration Day. Do you know what Decoration Day is? I was not sure, thought it had something to do with Memorial Day, so I had to look it up. General John A. Logan ordered the first observance, known as “Decoration Day” to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Mourners were to honor their fallen Civil War soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers. This was the pre-cursor of Memorial Day. Memorial Day, like Decoration Day, was specifically, to honor our military personnel who had died in battle. Although it has come to represent remembering all our dead it is meant for those who paid the supreme sacrifice in lying down their lives in service of their country.

Decoration Day Postcard c. 1910

I got to thinking about my great grandmother, Lulu, and who she may have thought of on Decoration Day. That made me think of her father, James Lewis Paden, who fought in the Civil War, but he did not die, he survived. Mostly it made me think of Lulu’s uncle, Sylvester G COATS, who died on the Battlefield in Champion Hill, Mississippi. He was just 21, and he would not go on to marry or have children. He would not even be remembered with a grave marker. How many of these ancestors do we have in our trees? I am grateful to my cousin Malia Hammerstrom for permission to post her story about Sylvester and his brother Charles:

Charles Noyce Coats was the oldest child and Sylvester G. Coats, the second child. [Uncles to Lulu (PADEN) MOSIER] Charles enlisted on Oct 24, 1861, at the age of 21, in the 11th Indiana Infantry Volunteers Company H. Sylvester, who was two years younger, followed him into war five months later. He must have traveled to Tennessee to join his brother’s company on March 28, 1862. They were among troops moving westward to try to cut off the Mississippi River from use by the Confederacy. Just a little over a year later, on May 16, 1863, Sylvester was killed at the Battle of Champion Hill. This battle was a part of the Vicksburg Campaign. Sylvester’s death is described as being due to a rifle shot to the forehead. According to old family stories, Sylvester and Charles were together on the battlefield that day when a bullet hit Charles’s gun, ricocheted, and killed Sylvester. Charles made his brother’s coffin and buried him on the battlefield.

A short time later Charles was promoted and eventually became Captain in the 53rd U.S.C. (Colored) Infantry. In 1865 Charles fell from a bridge on the LaGrue River and was seriously injured. He was paralyzed from the hips down and was unable to walk for six months. He was medically discharged from the army. Charles lived until 1889, but from family stories, military records, and state records he had a very difficult life—physically, mentally, and emotionally. The family believed he never recovered from his brother’s death. Charles eventually made his way to Nebraska where his sister Millie [Lulu’s mother] and her husband as well as his parents lived. After several other adventures, he died in the Norfolk, Nebraska in the state asylum and was buried in the Purple Cane Cemetery in Dodge County, Nebraska. His grave remained unmarked for 38 years until his niece, Jessie Paden Kendrick, applied for a headstone due him as part of his veteran’s benefits.” Malia Hammerstrom

Battle of Champion Hills, Mississippi c.1887 Kurz & Allison

This writing brings these two men to life. It is clear, focused and informative. Writing, even a short piece, can not been done without the research. The point is that you don’t often know what you need to research, until you start writing. The WRITING forces you to dig deeper. It forces you to put the story in context. If you are staring at a blank page it isn’t because you can’t write, it’s that you don’t know their stories. Writing is the telling of someone’s story—to do that you justice, you will need to expand your genealogical research. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Family History Writing IS Resurrecting the dead. It is honoring their lives. Writing can be short and poignant, as this piece is. It is so much more than a name and dates on a tree. Two paragraphs….that is all it took. You can do this!

Kelly Wheaton with Malia Hammerstrom Copyright 2021. All RIghts Reserved.

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