"A Dying Breath on a Bloody Battlefield": A Civil War Ancestor Meditation, by Jon Host

Jon Host

The following is a guest post written by my dear friend and colleague Jon Cleland Host...

Hundreds dead on July 21st, with hundreds of thousands to follow.  That day, just around the corner, will be the 150thanniversary of the first major battle of the War Between the States (or the American Civil War).  Being a Northerner, somehow I missed the emphasis on the enormity of this conflict when growing up, and so I was shocked to learn that well over a half million brave men died in that war.  No other war, (not even World War II at 400,000 American casualties, and certainly not Vietnam with less than 60,000) comes close.

Some of us have a personal connection to those soldiers by knowing of an Ancestor who fought in the American Civil War, perhaps great-great-great-grandpa Jim.  Reflecting on that person can change the American Civil War from a note in a history book into a stunning chapter in the family history that got you here today – a part of who you are.  That person lived a very hard life, without which you wouldn’t exist.  Imagine if you were someone with such an Ancestor, and didn’t know it – that you lived day to day ignoring that brave part of yourself.  Don’t you want to know if you are descended from a Civil War soldier?

But without finding a Civil War soldier in our family tree, it’s pretty unlikely you are the great-great-great-grandchild of Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, right?  Can we make a reasonable estimate of the odds?

Let’s try.  First, consider how many Civil War era Ancestors you have.  You’ve got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.  Let’s put approximate dates on those (or use your actual, correct dates if you have them).  That gives two parents - born around 1950, and using 25 years for a generation, we end up with 32 Ancestors born ~1850, and 64 born ~ 1825.  Also, remember that in a group that large, you’ll have plenty of cases where both father and son fall into the eligible age (18 to 45 years old), and plenty of cases where a boy at 16 lied about his age so as to fight.  So for most of us, you have between ~40 and ~80 Ancestors who were between the ages of 18 and 45 in the year 1860, giving 20 to 40 male Ancestors – potential Civil War soldiers.  I’ll call them Male Civil War Ancestors, or MCWAs.

But were any of them soldiers?  How can we estimate that?  Luckily, we have data!  

Of men aged 20-40 in 1860, around 50% in the Union and an unbelievable 80+% in the Confederacy1 went off to fight.  Some basic probability calculations2 using these data show that if you are a Caucasian3 person without nearly all of your family having immigrated4 here since 1865, it ispractically certain2 that you are descended from one or likely more, Civil War veterans.  This is true for both people with purely Yankee ancestry, and even more certain for those with some Ancestors from the Confederate States.

As the math gave this answer and reality sunk in, I was amazed.  For nearly all of us, we are the children of many Billy Yanks, many Johnny Rebs!  Then, I thought of what it was like for our Ancestors to live in the American Civil War, whether slave or free.  Hold that in your mind for a moment.  Try running a google image search on, say, “civil war battle”, or if you’re brave, “civil war POW”.  Plus, the soldiers (about 20% of who died) of course weren’t the only ones who suffered.  For most of us, our great-great-great grandma Mary had to be told as a young child that daddy would never come home, or as a lovestruck 22 year old, that her beloved new husband George was gone forever, and that she’d have to raise baby Anne (you great-great-great-great grandma) alone. Yet they grew up, swallowed their pain, and raised your great-great-grandparents.  Within a couple generations, that pain was forgotten.  Those and many other powerful stories are as real as our lives today, even though the details have been lost in the mists of time.  You exist today because, through love and struggle, they survived, and in most cases, gave their kids the best life they could.

We too easily forget that we stand on a mountain of love and struggle from thousands of loving Ancestors, who often gave their whole lives of hardship just to make it by.  Because we don’t know the details, we forget that those lives existed.  For me, an awareness of those lives fills me with gratitude every day for all I am and all I have.  It lifts me up when faced with hardship, reminding me that I come from a long line of success stories, filled with noble Ancestors who faced down hardships at least as severe as whatever I’m facing today in this recession, who persevered again and again.  As the Civil War plays out in 150thAnniversaries over the next four years, each one will be a new reminder to me of the struggles of some of my Ancestors.  Along with thoughts of my trillions of other Ancestors, these will continue to be a source of strength and gratitude.  Will you remember them on July 21st?  Bull Run - July 21, Wilson Creek - August 10, Fort Donelson - February 16 the next year, Shiloh - April 6, 2nd Bull Run – August 29, Antietam – September 17th…… and more…

~ Jon Cleland Host


1.  To estimate the likelihood of a MCWA actually being a soldier, simply divide the size of the Union and Confederate armies (~ 2 and 1 million respectively) by the number of males ages 18 – 45.  Estimates of the number of males ages 18 – 45 in 1861 are around 3.8 million for the Union (3.5 million white + 3 million African American), for about 2/3.8 or a ~50% Union enlistment rate, and around 1 million males ages 18 – 45 in 1861 for the Confederacy, giving a Confederate enlistment rate conservatively well over 80%.   -Data from: U.S. Civil War: 150th Anniversary Reference Guide, compiled by Bill Lucey, using ``The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac: 1861-1865’’ By E. B. Long (Doubleday & Company Inc., 1971); ``Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War’’ (Harper & Row, Publishers); ``Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era’’ By James McPherson., http://www.billlucey.com/2011/01/us-civil-war-150th-anniversary-reference-guide.html,  Accessed 2011.06.28

2.  Let’s use those data to estimate the probability that you have Ancestors who fought in the U. S. Civil War.  Did your Ancestors live in the Union states in 1861?  Since 50% of soldier age males from the Union fought, that means that for each of your Yankee MCWAs, there is only a 50% chance that he wasn’t a soldier.  The odds that NONE of all of your Yankee MCWAs fought in the Civil War is therefore simply 0.5 raised to the power of the number of your MCWAs.  Now, look at how fast that drops to near zero:  0.5^6 = 0.016, so even if, due to immigration or such3, you estimate that you have only 6 MCWAs, you still have a 98.4% chance (that’s [1-0.016] X 100%) of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans.  With 17 or more MCWAs, as nearly all of us have, your odds, even using only Yankee MCWAs, of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans are 99.999+%.

Are any of your ancestral families from the South?  In the South, slavery allowed more households to survive with the white men leaving to fight, so over 80% of soldier-aged white men fought1.  Using the same math as above, the numbers are truly astounding – with just 2 Rebel MCWAs, you have more than a 96% chance (or [1-0.2^2] X 100), and with just 8 Rebel MCWAs (most Southerners have many more than that), you get a 99.9997% chance of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans.

2.  “But hold on!” you say – “I’ve got some recent immigrants in my family tree!  Don’t we have to remove them from the MCWA calculation?”  Yep.  Do so. Let’s say that someone as recent as your great-grandmother came over from Estonia in 1920.  Your great-grandmother is 1/8th of your lineage at her generation, so that removes 1/8 of your 40 to 80 Civil War era Ancestors, leaving ~17 to 35 MCWAs.  You can do the same for any part of your family tree made of post-1865 immigrants.  More importantly, the lives of those immigrants were hardly walks in the park.  They had the courage to leave the only home they knew, to get on that boat, and face an uncertain future as a mistrusted minority in America.  Why would they do that?  A potato famine?  War?  Starvation?  Ethnic “cleansing”?  Some of my Ancestors too are more recent immigrants, and their success in that brave move also fills me with appreciation and fits the last paragraph of the blog post above.

3.  What about African Americans?  In the North in 1860, free African Americans composed a full 10% of the population, and rushed to join the fight at rates similar to Caucasians, so if you are African American with at least some Northern heritage, the Yankee odds above apply equally to you.  However, the Confederacy was deathly opposed to allowing slaves to fight, and never did (though out of desperation it was considered in 1865).  So if all of your ancestry is from purely Southern U. S. African Americans, then you likely don’t have any Civil War veteran Ancestors.  Nevertheless, being that people move and intermarry, it will not be long before nearly everyone in the United States has Civil War veteran ancestors, including African-Americans living in the South.  More importantly, the life of a slave was often a harder life than even that of a soldier, so the main point of this blog post, as described in the last paragraph, is even more powerful for descendants of Civil War slaves than for Civil War veterans.