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THE QUEST FOR JOHN SUMMERS – by Peter Summers
There he was, staring out of the photograph at me…so formal, stiff, posed, and proud in his blue uniform of the Union Army. I was looking at John Summers, my greatgranduncle, born in 1844 and killed on 22 May 1863 at the battle of Vicksburg.

Many of us have ancestors who fought in the Civil War, so I am certainly not unique in that. But like all events in genealogy, it seems, when you find one of YOUR ancestors who was involved in that event, it is special regardless of how many others have over time made similar discoveries. The Civil War was a textbook event for me: a “head” event rather than a “gut” event, an intellectual event rather than an emotional one. I had read about it, studied it even, in school, but never really felt personally connected to it. That is, not until I discovered John, my very first ancestor who fought in it and died in it. That discovery started me on a years-long quest to gather information about him and fill in missing facts. I certainly am

Page - 2 mindful that the “discoveries” I made during my search were monumental as far as I was concerned, but no more significant or validating than those many of you have experienced if you have undertaken similar and ultimately successful searches. Written here are parts of my adventure I would like to share with you, parts of which may even be helpful if you are on a similar quest. This is how mine went.

HOW IT STARTED In the mid 1970’s I inherited a box of “stuff” that my aunt had collected, which included photos and family notes. Nestled in those was some sketchy information about John Summers who, according to family lore, was killed during the Civil War. I was not especially interested in genealogy then; in fact the subject had not even seriously crossed my mind. I kept the box, but paid little attention to it. I was in the military at the time and moved frequently. I saw that box only when I moved and had to account for it in my household goods. But regardless of my inattention to that family history then, I like to believe that the few scraps of information I had about John and his death during that defining period in our history was what ultimately brought me to interest in genealogy in general and to interest in my ancestors in particular.

HOW IT CONTINUED (the early years) It was several years before I dove into the box of “stuff” to explore John. I was able to discern that he lived in Wisconsin just before the War (thanks to census documents), and that he did not show up again in the Census after the War. This led credence to the belief that he was indeed killed during the War. My sister about this time, now early 2001, discovered she had a picture of John. She sent it to me, and there he was, looking out at me and appearing as I have described above. The existence of a photograph raised my interest and curiosity considerably. My sister also sent me some information a genealogist friend of hers found that identified his unit, and on a parallel track, I got the same information independently from a publication titled “Roster of Wisconsin volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865”. That source also said “killed in action, May 22, ’63, Vicksburg, Miss.” And another source told me he enlisted as a private on 20 January 1862 in Company A of the 14 th Infantry Regiment. I also saw where he had been in 7 engagements counting the one in which he was killed. The more information I got the more interested I became. And, although a tenuous link, I had seen combat as an infantryman as had John. I felt a bond forming between us as so often occurs between soldiers. Corny as it may sound, it was very real to me. And this is the point at which I thought the information stopped. I assumed that he became one of the approximately 300,000 Civil War dead whose bodies were placed in

Page - 3 various national cemeteries after the War, 54% of which are listed as “Unknown.” I assumed that John was one of these Unknowns.

HOW IT CONTINUED (the later years) Time passed and then it was late in 2003. I was attending a computer special interest group (called a “SIG” by those in the computer world). This particular group focused on using the internet for genealogy. The leader proved himself as helpful as he was knowledgeable. When I mentioned my ancestor John and Vicksburg, he set off to find if he was buried there. We discovered that some cemeteries are administered by Veteran’s Affairs, and some fall under the National Park Service. The latter has responsibility for the National Cemetery at Vicksburg because the site is classified as a National Military Park. After some searching around on the internet, we found the information we were looking for: a grave number for John. I was flabbergasted! There was yet more to the quest than I had imagined! And little did I know at that time how exceptional it was for the specific location of John’s grave to be known. That was truly the exception rather than the rule at Vicksburg. I vowed to go there.

HOW IT ENDED (Vicksburg) It was now the summer of the next year, 2004. My wife and I were taking a trip through the Midwest and on the way back home to Florida made good on my vow: we stopped at Vicksburg with the indent of finding John’s grave. A short history of the battle of Vicksburg may be of value here. It was a siege, actually, that lasted 47 days (from late May to early July of 1863), and was punctuated with nearly constant fights and skirmishes between the Union and Rebel forces. Based on John’s date of death, it was one of these Union assaults during which he was killed. The Military Park itself surrounds the city of Vicksburg, much as the Union forces did in the summer of 1863. One end of the park is anchored on the Mississippi River south of the city. It runs east and north in almost a perfect semicircle to terminate at the river north of the city. A one-way road follows the outside of that semicircle from south to north past the location of the Union forces, and then doubles back concentrically on the inside of the semicircle to trace the locations of the Confederate forces. The terrain is rough, following high bluffs above the city, and is cut by severe gorges caused by drainage to the river below. And that terrain is cut then again by the remnants of trenches and barriers erected for protection, assault, and defense. To the casual observer the ground today is simply rough and wooded and beautiful; to the person with some military experience, the importance of terrain to tactics and strategy is undeniable.

Page - 4 One can see why the siege lasted as long as it did; how the ground favors defense; how the Union troops had to fight the rugged terrain as well as the Confederate defenders. A tape is available to guide the visitor along the park road and explain the events that occurred there. Should you visit the battlefield, I highly recommend the tape. It takes you beyond the simple but undeniable beauty of the park to the human struggle that took place. It makes the ground “come alive” as it describes various clashes and feats of heroism and futility alike. Each state with sons who fought there has erected a monument to them. There are large state monuments, some actually entire buildings, as well as smaller markers to show where individual units were located in the line. All told, there are over 1300 historic monuments and markers.

Of course I was on the lookout for the Wisconsin monument and the marker for John’s unit. And there they were! The Wisconsin monument was huge, towering hundreds of feet high, and it listed all of the soldiers in all of the units from that state who fought there. John’s name was among them, listed with Company A of the 14th Infantry Regiment. I can recall, even now, the eerie feeling I had as I looked at his name there among those of his comrades. The quest that began at some low level of interest nearly 30 years prior was now building to a crescendo that caused me to feel excited, nervous, and also to be filled with awe and respect. Seeing his name there caused me to feel connected to that historic place and time in a way I never thought possible.

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One half mile further on I found the marker that represented his unit’s place in the Union line. It was approximately here, in an assault on 22 May 1863, that my greatgranduncle was killed.

HOW IT ENDED (The Cemetery) The National Cemetery is at the northern end of the park on a high bluff overlooking the river, and at the place where the park road leaves the Union lines and doubles back to follow the Confederate positions. It is a large, tiered plot of ground that covers 116 acres. To appreciate the cemetery, one was to know some if its history. It is the final resting place of some 17,000 Union Soldiers. This is the largest number of Union burials among all of the national cemeteries. (The Confederate dead are buried in cemeteries in the city itself, or removed to other locations closer to the soldier’s homes.) The Cemetery was not established and made available for burials until 1866, three years after the action at Vicksburg. All during the Civil War, hasty burials were made near the places where

Page - 6 battles were fought. At the end of the War, those soldiers were re-interred at national cemeteries. Most of the soldiers buried at Vicksburg came from temporary burial sites in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Record keeping was not at its best during wartime and grave locations were often lost, and compounding that, the identities of those whose bodies were fortunate enough to be recovered were also often lost. In the south during the campaign for control of the Mississippi River there was even a further compounding problem: the River would periodically overflow its banks and wash the hastily dug graves away. It was often simply unidentified piles of bones that were collected and buried at the national cemetery. At Vicksburg 75% of the dead are unidentified: almost 13,000 graves. I was suddenly very thankful for the twists of fate that caused John’s grave to be among the known. Those that are unknown are marked with small rectangular blocks of stone while the graves of those whose name is known have traditional tablet-like headstones. It is tremendously sobering to look over the cemetery and see so few headstones. I could only imagine the anguish of the families of those fallen soldiers, families who never had the closure brought by burying their loved ones, or of even knowing for sure where their graves were located. But John was among the known dead. This was probably due to the fact that he was killed at Vicksburg itself, ground controlled by a Union victory, and ground high above the river and thus protected from it. The rangers at the visitor’s center were helpful in locating his grave. I had the number on the headstone from the internet searches, and they had its general location on a map. It took only about 15 minutes of wandering the appropriate portion of the cemetery to find the marker. His grave was one of the few in that part of the cemetery that actually had a tablet headstone; most of those around him were the small, square blocks of the unknowns. The marker was a simple one: it stated just his name and his state. But I was satisfied. I was so happy to have found his grave that I was not concerned about what the headstone did or did not say. As far as I know, I was the only member of his family, extended or otherwise, to have visited his grave. I felt tremendous satisfaction standing there, satisfaction in ending a quest that was, for me, 30 years in the making, and for John a full 140 years. I felt the satisfaction of connecting with my family in general

Page - 7 and John in particular; I felt the satisfaction of a soldier connecting with another soldier who had made the ultimate sacrifice. And I also felt satisfaction at making a personal connection to one of the defining periods and events in our nation’s history. The Civil War was now more real to me than ever before: it had moved from my head to my gut, from my mind to my heart.

AFTER THOUGHT My interest in the genealogical world has grown over the years that this search for John was conducted. My database of ancestors and offspring has grown to just short of 8000 names. My list of research contacts, many of whom I now count as family, and even more I now number as friends, has also grown to my great joy. And at the heart of it all, at its center, is this one quest…is my great-granduncle…is John Summers.
Peter Summers is a graduate of West Point (Class of 1967) and after more than 20 years in the Service, and 5 years in industry, he spent over 15 years teaching at college level. During the summers, he and his wife travel the country volunteering with the National Park Service and connecting with other genealogy societies. He also teaches many genealogy- and computer-related classes, and was recently honored by being elected the president of the Pinellas Genealogy Society of Pinellas County, Florida. He has been working on his genealogy since 1972.