Friday, May 25, 2007

The Carte de Visite That Should Not Have Been

An album full of images of the Hearne family of Maine, including one carte de visite of a Union soldier identified as Luther Hearne of the Twelfth Maine Infantry (shown in this image on the left), came up for auction on eBay. Prior to bidding, as is my practice, I did preliminary research on his military career and discovered that he suffered a wound and fell into enemy hands at the Battle of Cedar Creek, and died as a prisoner of war. Hearne ranked as a corporal — a potential problem, as he wears a first sergeant’s stripes in this photograph. Assuming I’d find that he received a promotion from corporal to sergeant when I examined his complete record at the National Archives, I purchased the album and received it in the mail a couple weeks later.

I unwrapped the package, carefully opened the album, and discovered an image of Hearne taken (by my estimation) in the early 1870s (shown at right). Impossible! Hearne died in a Confederate prison in 1865.

No question that the man in the photograph was not Luther Hearne. But who was he? Several key clues emerged after closer study of the images. Perhaps the most valuable is the crystal clear view of the kepi (shown in detail here). Easily readable is the letter C and the regimental number 27. Another clue is on the back of the image of the post-war view of the veteran: The photographer’s name and address — in Monmouth, Illinois — is listed. Many other cartes in the album also contain photographer’s back marks, and many of them are from Saco, Maine, and other towns in York County.

I emailed the seller of the album, who reported that the album came from a Maine estate sale. He apologized for the misidentification. I believe he acted in good faith, and simply concluded that the soldier must have had the last name of Hearne simply because the album belonged to the family with that surname.

Armed with this information, I made a preliminary conclusion that the soldier was a resident of York County who served as a first sergeant in Company C of the Twenty-seventh Maine Infantry. He was somehow related to the Hearne family, and lived in Monmouth, Illinois, after the war.

I went online, began searching for information about the Twenty-seventh Maine, and found several helpful sites. I learned that the regiment was recruited from York County, which gave me hope that I was on the right track. I identified five soldiers who held the rank of sergeant in Company C, then logged in to and began to search Civil War service and family records for more information about them. Only one man was a complete match: William J. Milliken Jr. Born in York County, he enlisted in Company C of the Twenty-seventh as a first sergeant and left the army as a first lieutenant. He lived in Monmouth, Illinois, from 1866 to about 1873. His mother, a native of Saco, was named Susan Hearne.

I conclude that the soldier pictured is William J. Milliken Jr., and plan to examine the regimental history book in the hopes that his likeness is reproduced on its pages.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

XC (groan)

To request a Civil War veteran’s pension record at the National Archives, you must first access his file card on microfilm. This card contains application and certificate numbers for his disability and survivor’s pensions. These numbers are necessary to request his records. Fairly simple, considering the staggering amount of paperwork veterans and their families filled out, and the government maintains to this day.

Certain file cards contain the letters XC at the bottom, followed by a seven-digit number. I’ve come across these on several occasions. When I do, it’s usually followed by an audible groan, because this means the records are in the custody of the Veterans Administration.

At some point after their founding in 1930, surviving Civil War veterans or their survivors’ benefits records were transferred to the VA, and remain in their possession today. Pension records belonging to deceased veterans and their deceased spouses (or other beneficiaries) were sent to the National Archives. The records remain divided to this day.

To access the VA files, one must send a request letter. They contact a regional office. Regional representatives research their records, access more numbers, and then contact their central records storage facility to access the original file and make arrangements for the requestor to view them. This process usually takes at least six months, and has taken as long as a year. On more than one occasion I’ve had to make a second request. I’m currently appealing two requests, which the VA tells me they do not have sufficient information to locate the files. I believe this is an administrative error.

In contrast, the National Archives maintains their pension files in the main building in Washington, D.C. Once you’ve filled out the request form with the numbers from the file card, the original record is retrieved and delivered to a research room for viewing. The whole process takes about two hours.

If the pension files in possession of the VA were permanently transferred to the National Archives, the entire group would be reunited with the government agency best equipped to deal with fragile documents, and with a public request procedure that is efficient and timely.