How many people alive today can say that their father was a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln in the White House? Fred Upham can.
Despite sounding like a tall tale and a mathematical impossibility, it's documented truth. Fred's father, William, was a private in the Union Army's Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was severely wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861, and later personally appointed by President Lincoln to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Fred's in exclusive company—the dwindling group of children of soldiers who fought, North against South, 150 years ago.
All are very old "children" (Fred, 93, is not the oldest among them), born mostly in the 1910s and 1920s to Civil War veterans and young brides. The fathers, typically on second marriages, were in their 70s or 80s when these children were born.
Fewer than 35 of these remarkable offspring are now on the rolls of heritage groups that keep track of them. They're referred to as "real" sons and daughters and are given a place of honor at the ongoing events commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. (See "A Sketch in Time: Bringing the Civil War to Life," in National Geographic magazine.)
"They're a true link to another part of this country's history," says Gail Lowman Crosby, president of the real daughter club for the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). "Whether Confederate or Union, they're a treasure. The stories they tell today are the stories they heard as they sat on their daddy's knee."
Iris Lee Gay Jordan is one of only 11 surviving daughters of Southern soldiers documented by the UDC. She was nine when her father, Lewis F. Gay, died, in October 1931. Her eyes still well up with tears as she remembers him.
"Mostly, he told stories on Sundays," she says. "I could sit on the porch and listen to his stories all day." Corporal Gay had been in the Confederate Army's Fourth Florida Volunteer Infantry. He saw combat in numerous bloody battles across the South: in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. He was reportedly one of only 23 soldiers left in the Fourth Florida by war's end.
Iris's and Fred's fathers were lucky. After being captured in separate battles in 1861 and put in prisoner of war camps—William Upham was sent south to Libby Prison, in Richmond, Virginia, and Lewis Gay north to Fort Delaware, near Wilmington—both were released the next year in a prisoner exchange that swapped Union soldiers for Confederates.
Their treatment as prisoners, they both said, was humane at this early stage in the war—in contrast to the horrors that happened later on in notorious places like Andersonville, in southwest Georgia.
"Prisoners were exchanged only sporadically for part of the war," says Derek Mills, educator at the National Civil War Museum, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "Those who were exchanged early on were very lucky. As the war dragged on, exchanges broke down and didn't happen much again until the war was nearly over."
Iris and Fred say their fathers held no animosity toward their captors. "My father said that the men in the North were just like he was," Iris says. "He told us, 'We were all far away from home, and we all would much rather have been home with our families.' There was no bitterness on his part at all."
Allegiance Lives On
Clifford Hamm—whose father, John, fought for the South, serving in the 71st Regiment, North Carolina Troops—recalls, "My seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Little, taught about the war from the Southern point of view. To her, it was the war of Northern aggression—not the Civil War, because there was nothing civil about it."
Clifford, who followed in his father's warrior footsteps as a U.S. Marine in World War II, says he still thinks of the War Between the States the way Mrs. Little did.
"My father would never acknowledge the South was defeated," he says. "He used the word 'overcome.'"
Extraordinary even among this exclusive group of Civil War children are four surviving siblings from the same family: Charles Parker Pool's sons, John, Garland, and William, and his daughter, Florence Wilson. Their father served in the Union's Sixth West Virginia Infantry.
"My father didn't like to talk much about the war," Garland says. "He did say the main reason he wanted to fight was that he didn't want to see the nation divided, and because he was against slavery."
William remembers the story of his father's company capturing a Confederate soldier who had a slave as his personal attendant throughout the war. The slave, freed when his master was taken prisoner, had asked Pool's company commander for his gun. "The slave clubbed the Rebel with it and stood over him saying, 'The bottom rail is now on top.' "
Whether Northern or Southern, these Civil War sons and daughters shared a collective experience as they grew up: In school, when they proudly told how their fathers had fought in the Civil War, teachers and classmates scoffed, saying it couldn't be true. "There's been a lot of sideways glances over the years," Fred says with a chuckle.
"They told me," says Hazel Jeter, daughter of Silas D. Mason of the First Maine Cavalry, " 'It must have been your grandfather or your great-grandfather.' They thought I was lying and looked at me like I was crazy."
Probably nothing could compare to the incredulous looks young Fred Upham received when he said his father shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.