Want to feel like an amateur historian? Go to the National Archives.
There are few more “D.C.”, that is to say “bureaucratic”, experiences than visiting the main National Archives building here in Washington, D.C. First, there’s the mixture of tourism (the front of the building is a museum holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), a practical purpose (records that cumulatively tell the story of America), good old-fashioned bureaucracy (you have to go through an orientation, get a photo ID card, and sign several forms to look at the original records), and 21st-century jumpiness (you have to go through security on your way in and your way out). I could have easily been intimidated by the rigamarole, but I was determined to go through all this for the sake of one particular purpose: I was there to find the pension file for James C. Huhn, my 3-times-great-grandfather.
I had found through an online search that a certain James C. Huhn, a relative of mine, had fought in the Civil War. James was born in 1833 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I found him in the U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index (I need to investigate his service record some fine day, too), and then I found him in the U.S. Civil War and Later Pension Index. Both of these indicated that James enlisted as a private in Company E of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry. These files are not available in their entirety online. They are kept in the Archives in D.C. Lucky for me, I live in the D.C. area. I mean, what’s the use of living in D.C. if you can’t bop on down to the National Archives on a lark, looking for some Civil War records?
So, on a snowy Monday, I took off work and bopped on down to the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. There is a separate entrance for researchers. I went through the process described above (security, orientation, photo ID, putting in the form to have the file pulled). I had some time to kill before the file would be available. Someone had to go retrieve it from the stacks, which obviously takes some time. I entertained myself by using the computers (free access to ancestry.com!) to do a bit of genealogy research. It turns out the relatives on my father’s side who moved in Kansas in the mid-19th century came from New York. One of them was a physician. I found an ancestor of mine who immigrated from England in the mid-19th century. And I found some delightful high school yearbook images of my grandmother.
After about an hour and a half of that fun, I went upstairs to pick up the file I’d requested. Just to enter the room, I had to hand over my brand new photo ID to be scanned. I also had to leave pretty much everything—purse, wallet, coat, scarf, pens—in a locker downstairs. They aren’t allowed anywhere near the records. Once I was admitted to the inner precinct, I picked up the file from the desk and sat down. There were quite a lot more documents than I’d imagined. I’d pictured two of three pieces of paper, probably a pension application and perhaps a few explanatory notes. But there were various applications (most of them dating to after 1890), affidavits, and records. It was a real treasure trove of information, and it gave me a very interesting look at my great-great-great grandfather’s time as a soldier and his life following the war. I knew that he was in the cavalry; I knew he’d probably been injured since he applied for a pension; and I knew his unit had not taken part in any of the blockbuster battles of the war (I looked up the service record of the 14th Pa. Cav. online). I wanted some more details on what James’s experience was like 150 years ago.
The first thing I found a physical description of James C. Huhn:
Height: 5 feet 9 inches
Eyes: Hasel [sic]
Place of Birth: Fayette Co., Pa.
Leading through the file, I saw that James had indeed been wounded during the war:
I have the honor to request that you will furnish from the records of the War Department a full report as to the service, disability, and hospital treatment of James C. Huhn, who, it is claimed, enlisted October 28, 1862 and served as private in Co. E, 14th Reg’t, Pa. Cav. and was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, July 25, 1865. While serving in Co E., 14th Reg’t. Pa. Cav., he was disabled by injury to the toe of the left foot incurred at Hagerstown, Md., Dec. 15, 1862. Also, injury to back received at Staunton, Va. about June 1, 1864.
I matched up the dates and places with the service record of the regiment. When he was injured in the foot in October 1862, the unit had just been organized a month and a half earlier. The battle of Antietam had taken place about a month earlier, on September 17, in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland. It’s likely that in the wake of the Confederate invasion of Northern territory, James decided to sign up for the war. After the battle, the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee fled in slow motion across the Potomac River into Virginia. Union forces, including James, were then stationed in that region of Maryland to make it clear to Lee that turning around and trying again was a bad idea (of course he was too well thrashes for that anyway). Exactly how James was injured in the foot in December 1862 isn’t clear. The regiment was apparently not in any battles at that time, so it could have been accidental. Not long after James was injured, the regiment transferred to Harper’s Ferry and were part of the defenses of the Upper Potomac. In other words, they were protecting Washington, D.C. from invasion (it nearly happened anyway; Jubal Early got perilously close to the city in 1864).
The second injury, to James’s back, took place over a year and a half later, in June 1864. This was during the Shenandoah campaign of 1864, which the 14th Pa. Cav. was part of. According to my sources, the regiment was involved in Hunter’s raid of Lynchburg (May 26 to July 1). So presumably, James was injured during the first few days of the Lynchburg offensive, perhaps during a skirmish. Since there’s no indication of the nature of the injury or how it was received, it, like the other injury, could have been an accident. As we’ll see later, my poor ancestor may have been accident-prone.
Aside from records of injuries, we also have a record of James’s illnesses. He was admitted to the hospital for “Remitt. Fever” (i.e., remittent fever, or a fever that abates but doesn’t fully go away) on August 1, 1864. It’s possible there is a link between the wound he received a month and a half earlier (to his back) and the fever. Perhaps the wound got infected, or maybe he just caught a camp fever. After all, disease was the greatest killer of men during the Civil War, not violence. James was first sent to the hospital at Carlisle Barracks in PA, then transferred the next day to a hospital in Harrisburg, then to a general hospital in York, PA. On December 17, after four and a half months, he returned to duty. He must have been quite ill to be out of action for so long!
After this, the pension file contained a dizzying array of pension applications, most of them from the 1890s and later. Since James was born in 1833, this would mean he was in his 60s when he applied for a pension from the government in return for his military service. The applications seem to have had various outcomes. Some are stamped with a big, red “Rejected”. Some give an amount of money to be paid per month, varying from $6 a month to $40 a month. Even given the huge amount of inflation that has occurred since then, this was a pretty modest pension. On the pension forms, various doctors offer their opinion on James’s condition. The opinions range from sympathetic to dismissive. One doctor noted that James was “an industrious, hardworking man”, while another said, “degree of disability has not been shown”. Keep in mind that James was a blacksmith, so he did pretty physical work and any impediments endangered his livelihood. The doctors noted that he had a lot of pain in his back and that there was “deformity and stiffness of knuckle joints” (most likely due to age, not a war-related injury). He also started to go deaf.
Then something rather sad happens: James loses an eye. In January 1891, a doctor signed an affidavit indicating that James had an unfortunate accident while quarrying rock: he was hit in the face with a piece of limestone, which pierced his iris and destroyed the eyeball. It’s a gruesome injury. Then, in 1897, there is another unfortunate development: James applies for an increase to his pension because of “increased disabilities from pensioned causes and loss of his leg three inches above the ankle”. (There is a little more after this, including the word “accidental”, but I can’t make out the handwriting.) So, clearly, near the end of his life, James was—sadly—not in great shape: he had lost a foot and an eye, was mostly deaf, and didn’t have full use of his hands. He must have been one gnarly old man!
In spite of this, James lived until 1920., when he died at the soldiers’ home in Erie, Pennsylvania. I’m not entirely clear when he moved there, but given his multiple injuries and disabilities, and given his advanced age (he died at 88 years old), it’s clear he needed assistance in his later years.
One of the largest attended funerals held in Smithfield was that of James C. Huhn, aged 88 years, who died in the Soldiers Marine Home in Erie, Pa., last Thursday.
Mr. Huhn had a wide circle of friends in and about Smithfield where he had spent practically his entire life, until late years when he found considerable pleasure and comfort with old friends and comrades in the soldier’s home in Erie. He was a veteran of the Civil War, serving with the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
Those surviving are the following children: Miss Emma Huhn of Pittsburgh, Charles of Smithfield, Fred of Pittsburgh, Lloyd of Chicago, Homer, John of Fairmont, Gideon of New Geneva, and George of Iowa. The funeral was held yesterday afternoon from the home of his son Charles in Smithfield with interment at the Baptist cemetery.