In the better-late-than-never department, Gary Beals forwarded this story from Time magazine about West Virginia's search for descendants
of Civil War soldiers. Thanks! -Editor
In 1866, the West Virginia legislature passed a resolution authorizing the distribution of medals for officers and soldiers who were honorably discharged,
killed in battle or who had died of causes related to battle wounds. The medals were "a slight testimonial of the high appreciation, by the State, of your
Devotion, Patriotism and Services," as West Virginia's first Governor, Arthur Boreman, wrote in a letter to a veteran in 1867. And the war was particularly
important to West Virginians, as it only became a state in 1863, after a two-year effort launched by Virginians who wanted to stay in the Union.
The state authorized the minting of 26,000 medals to honor the men who fought in its regiments. But, of that number, there are 3,392 that haven't been
Now, with the help of new technology, the state is making an effort to see that those medals get to the descendants of those who served. People who believe
they have ancestors who served in West Virginia can search the list of names of medal recipients on the website for the state's archives and apply to prove
that they are related.
West Virginia wasn't the only state in the Union to authorize these medals, but it was among the earliest and its process of distributing medals is unique.
The same year West Virginia authorized its medals, Ohio ordered medals from Tiffany & Co. for Buckeyes who had signed up to fight and re-enlisted. Around the
40th anniversary of the Civil War, the New Jersey legislature signed off on three medals. And similar to West Virginia, Massachusetts - which authorized medals
in 1906 - has a collection of more than 800 unclaimed "Minutemen" medals, but no plans to distribute them. (Brigadier General Leonid Kondratiuk, Director of
Historical Services for the Massachusetts National Guard, cites lack of resources, and says he has seen only a few cases of descendants coming forward in his
last 20 years in the job.) Representatives of the Ohio, New York and New Jersey historical military records divisions told TIME that they don't have a
stash of unclaimed medals.
"I've never seen any other state [besides West Virginia] have a notice out saying 'we have medals still,'" says Robert J. Wolz, historian for the Sons
of Union Veterans of the Civil War. "Most of them were issued when the veterans were alive."
By his count, there were about 409,000 Union veterans alive in the 1890s, just under 250,000 by around 1900 and about 34,000 in the 1920s.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which was the preeminent organization of Union veterans, advertised the medals. But the more veterans that passed
away, the more likely it became that knowledge of these medals has been forgotten in families. In the case of the West Virginia medals, there was an uptick in
interest in 1963, around the 100th anniversary of statehood - but generally, the claims have come in dribs and drabs, according to Randolph Marcum, who carries
out the medals program at the West Virginia State Archives and is a veteran himself.
But as genealogy websites have grown in popularity, so too has awareness of these unclaimed medals.
Jerry Holley, 49, discovered his great-great-grandfather Andrew J. Halley's name on the list of West Virginia medal recipients through MyHeritage.com in
2017. (The spelling of their surname name changed in the intervening years.) The Israel-based genealogy and DNA-testing service helped Holley, who lives in
Thornville, Ohio, polish his family tree and track down U.S. Census documents he needed to prove the medal belonged to his family. Halley even discovered that
his great-great-grandfather had fought against one of his other great-great-great grandfathers, Anderson J. Bradley, who was on the side of Confederate
Virginia - not so surprising a phenomenon, given the history of the separation of the two states.
Making a claim can be a long process. Birth, death and marriage records can be searched on the West Virginia State Archives website, but only up to a point.
When West Virginia was part of Virginia, the counties weren't required to keep records of births and deaths until 1853, so the research is hard when it comes
to tracing people who were born prior to the split - which was the case for the men who served in the Civil War. In addition, U.S. Census records before 1850
just listed the head of household by name, and use tick marks to count off other members of the family. That means people making a claim may have to dig for
other types of verification, such as records of a will, land ownership, marriage announcements in newspapers or obituaries that list family members who survive
the deceased. Many medal recipients also scattered and moved out West after the war, making them harder to trace.
To read the complete article, see:
West Virginia Is Looking for the Descendants of Civil War Veterans Who Never Claimed Their Medals
Wayne Homren, Editor
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