Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Old Newspaper Spin

Just as newspapers today tend to take sides in politics, they did in the past as well. This can sometimes make it difficult to know how much one can believe when our ancestors turn up in the local press. I was recently reminded of this. I'm currently reading an engaging book about James A. Garfield (Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard) and the events leading up to and following his assassination in 1881. The book recalled to mind an article that appeared in the Kalamazoo Telegraph describing how one of my ancestors decided to go against his prior political leanings to support Garfield. “As [Edward Flynn] expresses it, he has not left the democratic party, but the party itself has left the union sentiments to which he, as an old soldier, feels deeply devoted. He has felt very loth to leave old political ties and associations but he feels too deeply the convictions to which he devoted his life all through the [Civil] war.” [1] As a result of his public declaration, “Mr. Flynn meets with all kinds of petty meannesses [sic] from his late political friends on his change of affiliation.” [1]

Because the Telegraph lauded Flynn for his switch, the Kalamazoo Gazette simply couldn't resist responding. The Gazette cited two unnamed members of Flynn's company. “They both agreed that Flynn, while in the army was a republican, and the most complete shirk and slink in the company, and spent three quarters of his time on the sick list.” [2]

Not to be outdone, the Telegraph published a rebuttal. “Jealousy has excited the publishers of the Gazette to pitch into Edward Flynn for coming over to the Garfield side. We are reliably informed by a soldier who served with Flynn in the same company that he served his three years faithfully and then re-enlisted, participated with his company in all the battles under McClellan and was present at the battles of Blackburn's Ford, Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hills, last battle of Bull Run, etc.” [3] Edward Flynn, the Telegraph said was “one of the 19 soldiers of Co. I of the old Second who served through the war and came out alive.” [1]

So, what should I believe? If I only had the articles from a single newspaper it would greatly color how I viewed my gg-grandfather. Fortunately, I have both. I also have Edward's Civil War pension application file. While I know that these files are, by definition, a vehicle for complaining about physical ailments, I must say that even after examining the files for about a dozen of my kin, Edward strikes me as a bit of a complainer. In his favor, I should state that near the end of his service (1 June 1865), Edward had been promoted to the rank of Corporal. [4] While I'm not a military expert, it seems to me that Edward wouldn't have been promoted if he had shirked his duty for much of the war as alleged by the Gazette sources. While that is circumstantial evidence, Oliver Caruthers, a Corporal in Edward's unit stated “Flynn was in my squad most of the time. I remember that sometimes it was pretty hard for him to march and he complained of being stiff and sore but he kept up with the company. He was a good soldier.” [5] In regard to Edward receiving assistance in getting around Caruthers recalled “I do know that [Flynn] never would accept or ask any favors so long as [he] could help [himself].” [5]

So, what do I believe? Despite the mud-slinging I think I can accept some of the basics, primarily because I have the pension file for backup. I don't think Edward was a slink or a shirk because his record simply doesn't support that conclusion. Among other things, he enlisted ten days after the attack on Fort Sumter, re-enlisted after his three year term expired and served until his discharge at the end of July 1865. [4] However, the claim of being frequently on the sick list has more merit. Edward was in the hospital at least once for rheumatism. [5] Some of his comrades may also have believed him to be a shirk and a slink because he was at least twice on detached service, once in the ambulance corps for about seven months and another time as a provost guard for just over nine months. [4] The bottom line is that you should always take stories (whether family lore or from newspapers) with a grain of salt, analyze what you find and try to corroborate what you can before you draw any conclusions. Newspapers can be a great resource in the absence of other information, but I'm sure we've all seen enough mistakes in obituaries to know that we shouldn't believe everything we read.

  1. “Out For Garfield,” Kalamazoo [Mich.] Daily Telegraph, 31 August 1880, page 1, column 2, digital images, Kalamazoo Public Library ( accessed 12 January 2013), Kalamazoo Telegraph Collection.
  2. Kalamazoo [Mich.] Gazette, 4 September 1880, digital images, Genealogy Bank ( accessed 26 March 2011), Kalamazoo Gazette Collection.
  3. Kalamazoo [Mich.] Daily Telegraph, 14 September 1880, page 1, column 6, digital images, Kalamazoo Public Library ( accessed 12 January 2013), Kalamazoo Telegraph Collection.
  4. Compiled Service Record, Edward Flynn, Cpl, Co. I, 2nd Michigan Inf.; Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations, Civil War; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  5. Deposition of Oliver Caruthers (Deposition C), Edward A. Flynn (Cpl., Co. I, 2nd MI. Inf., Civil War), application no. 83,138, certificate no. 63,675, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications. . ., 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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