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.