This is the first of a series of regular Tuesday afternoon posts. In December they will be Monday afternoon posts since I am otherwise booked tomorrow and the two following Tuesdays are Christmas and New Year's Day.
As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is the first of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew. I'm telling this story this week because I just saw the movie Lincoln, and because it ties into to next week's story, which is related to Christmas.
A year ago today I couldn’t go back past the mid-1800s on my family tree and, for three of my four grandparents’ ancestors, I couldn’t even go that far. As most of you know by now, earlier this year I discovered, to my surprise, that I have many, many New England Yankee ancestors dating back to the earliest days of Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 1600s. Particularly since I still live in Massachusetts, it’s been quite a thrill to visit local cemeteries, town halls, etc., in search of the traces they left behind.
This past spring I went to the Boston branch of the National Archives and saved to USB the Revolutionary War pension files for two of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers (4x). Both of them served from Massachusetts then moved to Vermont just after the Revolution, at a time when there were very few people in Vermont (there still aren’t all that many people in Vermont, but back then it was really empty). Looking at handwritten papers relating to direct ancestors who came seven generations before me was a strange experience.
It occurred to me, after a lady at the local historical society in Vermont told me she was descended from the same couple, that there must be many, many people descended from these folks seven or eight generations later, especially since they each had a large number of children. Out of curiosity I started to trace the branches down, getting pretty close to the present day. A few people contacted me, via ancestry.com, and asked how I was related. There were others that I contacted when I saw their trees had a brick wall I could break through. In the process I learned that the descendants of those two young Revolutionary War soldiers are spread all over this vast country, literally from northern Maine to San Diego, Miami to Alaska, and many places in between. This is strange to me because I live in Massachusetts and it apparently never occurred to my direct ancestors to leave the northeast.
In tracing the lines down I came across all sorts of human stories. Some of them are inspiring, some sad, some both. There were a lot of people who died far too soon, leaving young children behind. There were a lot of young children who died. A few in particular made an impression on me and I’d like to share them so these people might be remembered. Here is one of those stories, concerning quite distant relatives.
My 3x-great-grandfather, Lyman Perkins, was born in 1803 in the small town of Barnard, Vermont, where his grandfather (one of the Revolutionary pensioners I looked up) had settled in 1787 after five years in nearby Woodstock. Lyman had five brothers (two of whom died as babies) and one sister. The brothers all stayed local; the sister moved to Wisconsin. Just on his father’s side alone, Lyman had nine uncles and three aunts. One of the uncles moved to Maine, one of the aunts moved to Illinois, then Missouri, then Utah in the Mormon exodus. The rest of the siblings, aunts, and uncles stayed right there in the Barnard area.
As a result Lyman had many relatives, including dozens of first cousins, living nearby. One of those first cousins, Hannah, married a man named Earl Vaughan in 1828. They had six sons and a daughter, and lived in Taftsville, Vermont, on the border between Woodstock and Hartland. Taftsville is the same small village where my great-grandfather was born in in 1889.
Hannah’s fifth child, Elisha Darwin Vaughan (Elisha was her father’s name), was born in Taftsville on April 21, 1837. There were many Elishas in the area (and in the family), so they took to calling him Darwin. According to his service records, Darwin had black hair, grey eyes and a dark complexion. He was 6 foot 1, very tall for the times, and was a professional photographer, also unusual for the times.
In 1861 Darwin married Almira Freeman Newcomb. Almira came from an old seafaring family in Wellfleet, toward the tip of Cape Cod. Her uncles were ship captains, as was her oldest brother. Her grandfather, Jeremiah Newcomb, had served in the Revolution as well. During the winter of 1776-77, while Washington was crossing the Delaware to the South, Jeremiah Newcomb sailed every day on a flat boat from Wellfleet to Boston harbor, some 55 nautical miles (over 60 land miles). There he set up cannons and bombed British ships attempting to enter the Harbor.
Later Jeremiah Newcomb was one of thirteen men on the Resolution, captured by the Royal Navy as an American privateer ship, and was sent to Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. He survived and, after the 1783 Treaty of Paris, returned home to Cape Cod, where he lived to be 82. Almira’s father, Jeremiah’s youngest son (also Jeremiah) was a sailor in his youth, but in 1849 he moved his wife and five youngest children to Vermont, where Almira met Darwin Vaughan.
Darwin and Almira moved, soon after they married in 1861, to the Finger Lakes region in Upstate New York. Their daughter, Mary Etta Vaughan, was born there on May 26, 1862. On August 22, when the baby was not yet three months old, Colonel Eliakim Sherrill (a former Congressman then in the State Senate) received authority to raise New York’s 126th Volunteer Infantry Regiment in that area. Darwin enlisted, for a period of up to three years, that very day in the village of Covert, up the lake from Ithaca. He was assigned to Company C.
For their surrender the regiment was criticized by an Army investigating commission and unfairly became known as the “Harpers Ferry Cowards.”
Fortunately for the 126th New York, the Confederates paroled them and they did not end up in Andersonville. They instead marched 125 miles to Annapolis and took the Northern Central Railroad to a Union camp near Chicago. From there Sgt. Henry Childs of Waterloo, New York, wrote home: “We have comfortable quarters now and the boys are getting rested and feel pretty well. How long we are to stay here, I have not learned, but presume until we are exchanged.” Sgt. Childs was correct; the 126th New York soldiers were formally exchanged for Confederate prisoners and returned to the battlefield in December 1862.
The regiment camped for the winter at Union Mills in Fairfax County, Virginia, not far from Manassas. There they were assigned for three months (January to April 1863) to Major General Silas Casey’s brigade, which was one of several tasked with protecting Washington, D.C. against Confederate attack. In June 1863 the regiment was moved to Gettysburg.
By 1916, they had moved to Woodstock, Vermont, where Almira had spent much of her youth and met Darwin Vaughan over 50 years earlier. Mary Etta had never before lived in her father’s home state. They lived right down the road from where Darwin’s parents and many of his relatives were buried, including my own direct ancestors. Many members of his family still lived in the area. I don’t know if, after living away from Vermont for so long, Almira maintained any strong relations with them.
Almira and Mary Etta had two boarders in 1920, a young wife whose husband was away and her baby daughter. I wonder if they saw a reflection of their former selves in those boarders. (That woman was reunited with her husband soon; they had another daughter in 1921 and moved to Nebraska)
Almira Freeman Newcomb Vaughan, well into her 80s, died in Woodstock in the 1920s. She married at 23, spent barely a year married before her husband went off to war, and then lived for more than 60 years as a widow. Her daughter Mary Etta never married, and lived in Woodstock for the rest of her life. She died in 1959 at the age of 97.
Since learning this story I’ve wondered a lot of things. Did Mary Etta feel angry at never knowing her father? How often did Almira feel lonely? Did she believe her husband’s service at Gettysburg had been important in saving the Union? Did she care? Did she blame the South for his death, or Lincoln, or Darwin himself for signing up and leaving her alone with a baby? I’ve wondered if she appreciated the Gettysburg Address, and how they both felt every Fourth of July, knowing that was the day Darwin died as the people around them celebrated. They were ordinary people whose long lives were forever changed in a single moment at Gettysburg.
Coming next Monday: Tragedy strikes the Vaughans again, at Christmastime