Thursday, February 21, 2008

WARNING: genealogical ramblings ahead

I saw an article tonight about one of the last three children of a Civil War veteran still collecting VA benefits (more on that below), which prompted a pleasant internet session exploring the place where some of my ancestors first tread on this continent's soil

More than anywhere else (with the possible exception of Salem, NH) Beverly, Massachusetts is the place that held (and may still hold) the greatest concentration of my paternal ancestors in North America. Virtually everyone in this country with the surname Woodbury descends from one of two brothers who first came to Cape Ann in the 1620s looking to make a foothold for the Dorchester Company. The oldest brother, John, was one of the “Old Planters” who settled the first land grant in what would become Beverly.

A couple hundred years after these industrious fellows set down roots in the New World, one descendant, Levi Woodbury (photo at top), became a state governor (NH), a U.S. senator, Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson, Secretary of the Treasury under Jackson and Van Buren, and ultimately a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. According to Wikipedia, “he is one of the few individuals to serve in all three branches of U.S. government and one of two people to have served in all three branches and also served as a U.S. Governor (the other being Salmon P. Chase)." Are you listening, Alex Trabek?

Approximately 360 years after the brothers arrived, my own résumé, by contrast, is significantly lighter than Levi's (to include the delivery of inter-office mail). Some are born to greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and the rest of us count it a major victory just to get our kids to school on time.

[As an aside, while I write this, an episode of Star Trek Voyager on Spike TV came on in the background: “The Q and the Gray.” This may be the weirdest Civil War connection I’ve yet seen in a science fiction series. The immortal Q transports Capt. Janeway to a version of the antebellum South, because he wants her to have his baby. Not kidding. See the synopsis here]

I’ve been to Beverly twice, and have a hankering to go back for a long enough sojourn to truly mine the holdings of the local historical society which, like so many New England societies, is a well-organized, long-established repository for some spectacular treasures. In the map above (click to enlarge), John Woodbury’s homestead at the head of the Bass River can be seen just below the word “Balch” in Balch Road. The house of his neighbor, John Balch himself, is the crown jewel of the Beverly Historical Society—well worth a visit. Have a look at it here.

My Beverly digression was prompted by this article (excerpt at the bottom of this post) by the Director of the BHS, writing on possibly the oldest “leap-year day” baby in America, one of the last children of a CW vet receiving benefits, and one of the last living children of a person born into slavery. It's an amazing thing to contemplate.

Her Beverly connection prompted me to spend time at the BHS’s website, eventually leading to the roster of the local GAR, which includes something like nine men with my surname. Can’t wait to send off for their NARA military and pension files. Even though the familial connections are a bit removed, there’s usually something interesting, and unexpected, contained in the records.

Beverly native celebrates a very special birthday
By Stephen P. Hall
Wed Feb 20, 2008

One other amazing discovery occurred as I searched back further into her family tree. I discovered that her father George lied about his age and joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry when he was about 15 years old in July of 1864, and later transferred to the 55th Regiment, and served during the last two years of the American Civil War. The enlistment papers indicate his stature at slight, at 5 foot, 5 inches tall. So add “surviving daughter of a Civil War soldier” to Florence’s list of amazing statistics and you can see we have a very special former Beverly resident celebrating her birthday later this month. I checked on the Internet and according to Veteran’s affairs there are only three children of Civil War veterans collecting VA benefits.

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