Friday, November 9, 2018

Discovering William Graham

William Graham at the time of his marriage to Mary Platt
For most of my life, William Graham, my great grandfather, was a hazy image from the past. I did know he was of Scots-Irish ancestry and came to this country from Ireland during the middle of the potato famine.  His at times eventful life was short, leaving this world in 1877 at age 44. When he died, his son Hiram was a few days short of his seventh birthday. Today, of one thing I am certain, this poor Irish farmer gave his proverbial heart and soul to his adopted country.

As a youngster, I occasionally heard stories of the man. These stories usually related to his service with the Union forces in the American Civil War. Other than my grandfather Hiram Graham, no one alive in the 1950s had known William, and Hiram's memory was that of a child. 

In 2003 I retired from my career as an urban planner in California. I then began one of the many projects I had set forth for myself in retirement. This particular project was the tracing of my ancestral family tree as far back and as comprehensively as I could with the new internet. 

The way had been smoothed by others. An aunt (my dad's oldest sister) and a third cousin had begun researching the family tree in the 1950s. The family tree they created consisted mainly of the New Englander ancestors of Mary Platt Graham, wife of William and mother of Hiram. Persons from that branch of the family tree rode west from New England to New York State toward the end of the 18th century. (settling in Unadilla, Niagara and the Finger Lakes Region) My hope was to expand on their research with the new capabilities provided by the internet. I also desired, but not with a lot of confidence, that new information regarding my Irish heritage would be brought to light.

Learning the Truth

In 2003, when I began this genealogy adventure, I knew the following stories related to my great grandfather, William Graham: 1. Born in 1837 in County Tyrone, Ireland, 2. Fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, 3. Captured by Confederate forces, 4. Imprisoned at Libby prison in Virginia, 5. Died from the after effects of the poor treatment he received at that prison. None of these stories were true.

Confirming or putting the story right required access to new sources of knowledge. Luckily for me, the evolving internet made finding and accessing such sources in the 21st century much easier than during the 1950s. One obvious source was William Graham's official Civil War military records. These quickly disabused me of the fake news in the remembered family history related to Gettysburg and William's supposed experience as a prisoner of war. During family story telling over time, a confusion probably arose between the names 'Libbie' (William's sister) and 'Libby' (the prison) and William's hospitalization for a period during the war.

Envelope of letter William mailed to his sister Libbie
The year 2008 seemed magical for me. That summer I became aware of letters written during William's service in the American Civil War. A web page of the Department of Special Collections, University Libraries of Notre Dame described 16 letters in its collection written by William Graham, primarily to his sister 'Libbie'.
The sixteen were not the last. A decade later new letters were still turning up thanks to Duke University and private collectors who had seen my William Graham website. The next post focuses on the letters and their use in this blog. 

In 2011 a new record came online which clarified William's actual origin in Ireland. This was the New York, Town Clerks' Registers of Men Who Served in the Civil War, ca 1861-1865. From this source I learned the maiden name of his mother and the county in which he was born and raised in Ireland. It was County Down, not County Tyrone.

My Hope

Climbed to the top of Maryland Heights in 2010. It was a very hot day.
This overlook is one place where I was pretty certain
that William had stood in 1862. Harper's Ferry is below.
I have grown quite attached to William Graham during the years spent researching his life.  I even see some resemblance in our physical appearance. Unlike my dad, grandfather and siblings, I do appear to have inherited his nose. Plus, we both grew a mustache.

If another life exists after this one, I hope William Graham appreciates my endeavors in telling his story. For myself, I would very much like to share time with him. Based on the words expressed in his letters, I think we would find much in common. 

Lastly, I would like to thank unknown family members: (1) who collected and saved the letters written to different persons and (2) who sold the letters. 

The second thank-you may surprise people. Most of the letters sold will probably never come to light. Nevertheless, I think purchased letters are more likely to be preserved for posterity. Given the family record, - my dad never retrieved the Hiram Platt Civil War diary he 'loaned' to one of his Syracuse University professors - if the letters had remained in the family's possession, they may not have survived into the 21st Century.

Reasons for Blog

The William Graham and the War Between the States website is being recreated as a blog for the following reasons: 
  1. Whatever happens to me, my descendants will not need to remember to pay an annual website hosting fee in order to continue finding this blog on the worldwide web. 
  2. The information contained in this blog will continue to be available to future generations - unless Google changes its policy on hosting of blogs at no cost to their creators. 
  3. No one will have to (a) pay an ongoing web design software subscription fee or (b) learn web design in order to incorporate future discoveries and Civil War letters in an updated website.

1 comment:

  1. I purchased a letter off of ebay written by your grandfather written in 1864 while he was in a hospital, I purchased the letter a few years ago and still have it in my possession. Please feel free to contact me at