Not just a twig on the ancestral vine

The folded letter, now brittle, was written 135 years ago. It wouldn't be of interest to Andrew Carroll's War Legacy Project (Page 16), but it has enough meaning to my family that my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my dad all saved it. Now it's mine, a link to an ancestor about whom I know little.

It's a request from David Rice McGhee, a Confederate soldier mired in the siege of Petersburg, Va., during the summer of 1864 that he be granted leave to return home because his wife was dying.

I've often wondered if he returned to his company after his sad journey was completed. Surely the temptation would be great not to go back. I've also puzzled over what motivated a possibly illiterate farmer from Bedford County in Virginia, who never owned a slave, to leave his wife and five children to fight in the Civil War.

Does the fact that he saved this leave paper until his death 45 years later indicate the importance he placed on his war experience? Or was he pleased with the written recommendation of his commanding officer that his furlough be granted because he was a good man?

Long ago, I pored over countless rolls of microfilm in hopes of answering my questions. I gathered a number of dry-as-dust dates, but came up with just one answer: His wife did die.

But this week's cover story on genealogy (right) has inspired me to surf the Web to see what else I can discover, in order to make my great-great grandfather more of a real person to me instead of just a twig on the family tree.

*Write the Homefront, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail us at

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.