Everything in genealogical research starts out as a theory. You may know a fact for sure but it really it is just a part of your “theory” until you can find definitive proof.
That is, of course, if you are a really good genealogist. Some people don’t want to work that hard. And believe me, proving things can be hard work!
Here’s my theory: Chester D. Stevens (1822-1902), my great-great grandfather, was thought to be in the civil war. On what do I build that theory?
1. His son Frank wrote in a Kansas County History Book “He was a stanch (sic) Republican and served during the Civil war as an officer in the commissary department.” Now these county history books are notoriously suspect; after all, the people wrote their own bios for them and they weren’t always truthful. But I can use that quote as part of my theory.NOTE: Chester reported from Bolivar, Tennessee, specifically notes “Commissary” on the letter and says he is in the army.
2. Next, handed down in our family are bits of two letters that Chester wrote to his daughter “Ellen” at the time she was born in 15 September of 1862. The letters went to his wife in Mendota, Illinois, which is in northern Illinois just a bit south of Belvidere, where his mother, father and all the siblings lived. One of those letters is shown above.
So why doesn’t the National Archives have record of his Military Service? Three times I tried to get them to fork over whatever they had. Three times they said their records did not show a CD Stevens, a CD Stephens or any other variation or version of the name. Zilch. Zero. No military record. No pension record. No nothing. Period.
I looked for him in the Illinois militia. Zilch there, too.
Mind you, I’ve been trying to prove my Chester theory since 1984. Folks, that’s 26 years.
Last year I had an idea. Chester’s sister, Sophronia Stevens, married Steven A. Hurlbut, who at that time was an attorney in Belvidere, Illinois. The whole family knew Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War broke out, Lincoln put General Ulysses Grant (also a friend of the family) in place, and guess what? Steven Hurlbut was appointed a Brigadier General, and guess where he was in September of 1862 at the time Chester wrote his letter to hs newborn daughter? If you said Bolivar, Tennessee, you would be very correct. The 53rd Infantry Illinois Volunteers, headed by Gen. Hurlbut, arrived in Bolivar on September 13 and moved from Bolivar on October 4. Did Hurlbut get his brother-in-law Chester D. Stevens into the mix somehow?
Last night at our genealogy society meeting we had a superb presentation by Kerry Bartels, an Archives Specialist at the Pacific Region National Archives recently relocated from Laguna Niguel to Riverside. After listening to Bartels, I am convinced that the National Archives holds the secret of my Chester D. Stevens’ participation in the Civil War. He may not have been an officer of the commissary department but I do believe he had something very important to do about getting supplies to the Union Army in Bolivar Tennessee.
Now even with the newly-found confidence that I’m heading the right direction with my theory, I can’t help but be discouraged. As Bartels says, the National Archives has a huge amount of material and what is online is only a miniscule part of it. And as he showed us, it is possible to find where things are kept. I add: if you are living right, if you are smart enough, if you have many years of life left in you, and if you either can travel around the country to comb through millions of documents or have found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow to pay for hiring a researcher to do it for you.
I wish I knew in 1984 what I learned last night. If I had, and if the stars were all in alignment, I might have had my theory proved by now, even understanding that sometimes what you find is that you are left holding a theory blown to h—l by facts you didn’t expect.
It was a wonderful meeting last night. I’m old enough, after researching for so many years, to appreciate what he said and not so old that I can’t dream of possibilities. But I’m also realistic enough to know that it isn’t likely going to happen in my lifetime. Maybe at some point down the line one of my descendants will become interested enough to take on the challenge of hunting for and locating the very box at the National Archives Branch that contains the Commissary Records pertaining to Bolivar, Tennessee in September of 1862 that will prove the role of Chester D. Stevens in the Civil War. Perhaps that person will even be able to access those records from the computer at his or her home. No, I'm not discouraged, just a little sad that it won't be me.
I hear you asking why we put ourselves through all this? Hey, I do it for no other reason than because it is great, great fun. The side benefit is that it is the kind of mental exercise that is supposed to ward off senility in old age! What a hopeful outcome for simply having fun!