Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Civil War Stories. What to Believe?

While researching the Civil War service of my great-grandfather's brother, Lawrence Flynn, I made use of his compiled military service record, pension application file and histories of the units with which he served. I then wrote a brief description of his time in the military to share with my family. It was not the most thrilling read, but was as accurate as I could reasonably make it considering I had no personal stories to include. So, you can imagine my great joy when I found a Kalamazoo Gazette article at GenealogyBank.com containing an interview with Lawrence.

Photo of Lawrence Flynn taken during the 1860s.  From the author's collection.  All rights reserved.

“Camp Fire Tales” it was titled and I eagerly began to read. The article explained that Lawrence, aged seventeen, first attempted to enlist in Kalamazoo where he was reportedly attending school. Turned away, Lawrence traveled to Saginaw where he joined the First Michigan Lancers in October of 1861, though still underage. Lawrence may have believed it would be romantic to wield a lance while riding into battle on a horse, but that never came to pass. The regiment was disbanded within about six months, in part for a lack of horses and in part due to the large number of Canadians enrolled. So far, the article agreed with what I had previously found, though the bits about going to school and attempting to enlist in Kalamazoo were new to me.

By the third paragraph, however, I realized something was amiss. The article's author, Harry W. Bush, stated that soon after the Lancers were disbanded Lawrence enlisted in Company M of the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics on Sept. 24, 1862. While Lawrence did join Co. M, according to documents in his pension application file he did not sign up until Oct. 22, 1863. Moreover, he could not have joined the company in 1862 because company M was only formed in late 1863. They were quickly put into service, however, because by mid-November Company M was already busily at work securing the railroads in Tennessee and soon after in Alabama. [1]

Bush then stated that “while [Lawrence] may have missed some of the preliminary fighting done by the organization . . . he joined in time to participate in the fight at Lavergne, Tenn., January 1, 1863.” [2] Bush followed this by describing the battle of Stone's River in which the Engineers successfully fended off the Confederates who were attempting to sever the railroad supply lines at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He ended the passage saying “comrade Flynn was one of the men who helped beat off the rebel cavalrymen.” [2]

The rapid, yet solid construction of the Elk River bridge was also discussed. Again the implication was that Lawrence participated. But this feat too occurred prior to Lawrence's entry into service.

Finally, the article included another incident in which Lawrence reportedly played a key role. The story was that a group of twenty-eight Engineers & Mechanics was camped for the night. Suddenly, a colored man emerged from the darkness to tell them they were surrounded and would surely be attacked by the Confederates at dawn. Lawrence volunteered to pass through the enemy lines to seek aid. “I started out,” Lawrence related “and crawled along the ground for what seemed miles until I was well past the rebels. Then I got up and ran to Tullahoma [Tennessee] and gave the alarm. Just at daylight I guided a force of 700 boys in blue to where the rebels lay.” They drove off the Confederates, capturing some of them and saved their little band of men. [2]

Now I was faced with a question, what, if anything could I believe from this article ? Simply put, not much. Every record I have indicates that Lawrence only served in the Lancers and in company M of the Engineers & Mechanics. That being the case I must discount all suggestions of his involvement in anything prior to October 1863. That leaves only the Tullahoma story. This could be true, but considering the rest of the article I can't lend it credence. Unless I find another account of this incident I won't feel comfortable including it in my account of Lawrence's military service.

So then I wondered about the interview for this article. I can imagine three possibilities to explain the errors in the article. 1) Lawrence described some major exploits of the First Michigan Engineers & Mechanics and the reporter assumed Lawrence was involved. 2) Lawrence insinuated that he participated in these events. Or, 3) Lawrence simply lied. Sadly, I'll never know which is closest to the truth. I certainly don't want to believe that Lawrence lied about his service, but I can't rule it out either. In Lawrence's defense, the investigator for his brother Edward's pension considered Lawrence to have a good reputation in the community and to be a reliable source. And yes, I have seen instances in which people were considered unreliable. Unfortunately, that doesn't help me resolve where the fault lies for this article's errors.

One thing I did obtain from the article was a photo of Lawrence. I have only one identified photograph of Lawrence that was taken in the 1860s so it was like finding buried treasure even though the picture is of poor quality. Lawrence appeared to be bald and sported a very bushy, though well-groomed mustache. Lawrence died only months after the article was published and since money was scarce, this may have been the last photograph taken of him. While overall, the article proved to be a disappointment as it related to enlivening my account of Lawrence's military service, the photo saved it from being a total loss.

  1. Hoffman, Mark. “My Brave Mechanics, The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War.” 2007. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, Michigan.
  2. Kalamazoo Gazette, 1-30-1916, p7

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