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American Creative Nonfiction

Ain’t Genealogy Great!

(Based on a true story)

Walter Hanson was from East Tennessee. He was a proud southern gentleman. Maybe not so proud of the south’s slavery history, but still loyal to the memory of his ancestors. Proud that his great-great-grandfather had fought in the Civil War for the South. Proud of the tombstone in the local cemetery that, while not marking the grave of his progenitor, it did commemorate the man’s loyalty to the south with the inscription, “Jacob L. Arbeiter, Cpl. CSA, 1834 – 1865.”

Jacob Arbeiter was a German immigrant who had left Saxony in 1854 at twenty years of age and worked his way across the Atlantic on a ship of other poor immigrants. Landing in New Bern, North Carolina, he had sought some land of his own being offered across the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. There he settled and began to clear a small patch of woods for a farm. Not much land, but unlike Germany, it was his own.

When the War Between the States broke out in 1861, even though most of East Tennessee was pro-Union, Arbeiter had eventually signed up with the Confederates as most able-bodied men of his little town had done. Even though the town wasn’t especially pro-slavery, it just seemed the thing to do, being a Southerner first and an American second. That’s the way a lot of the southern men felt.

Five generations later, Walter still felt that way, and so he took pride in starting a genealogical search to learn more of his ancestors, especially the little town’s only Civil War casualty, a fate that had elevated Corporal Arbeiter to hero status in their eyes and cause a stone to be placed in their town’s cemetery as a memorial, even though his body was never recovered.

Walter’s search turned up a disturbing fact. It turned out Walter’s great-great grandmother never married Jacob. Her child was, in the nomenclature of the era, a woods’ colt . . . an illegitimate child. Subsequent generations were all the result of proper marriages, but this union was a bit of a shock and embarrassing discovery.

Nevertheless, Walter continued to ferret out as much information as he could find on Cpl. Jacob Arbeiter. There were mysteries surrounding the man. He found out through an old family letter written for Jacob by a literate fellow soldier and mailed from Vicksburg, Mississippi that he was about to be put on a steamboat to bring fellow soldiers home. Though the war had ended April 9, 1965, the letter was dated April 26. 

Why had he remained in Vicksburg over two weeks before heading home? Perhaps, the promise of a ride to Memphis was worth the wait? At least, he would have only the entire width of Tennessee to traverse once in Memphis and there were probably trains that were running in Tennessee to hasten the rest of his journey. 

But then, Walter found an old family Bible with the death date of Jacob inscribed, “April 27, 1865.” Along with that, in the margins of the Bible’s family tree page, Walter read, killed aboard the Sultana. “What was the Sultana?” Walter wondered.

After some research, he found the answer . . . the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. The paddle wheel steamboat Sultana while traveling up the Mississippi River, having just past Memphis a few miles back , exploded and sank killing an estimated 1,800 people!

The Sultana was on its way from Vicksburg to St. Louis when, pushing against a flood-stage river, one of its boilers exploded. This caused the other two boilers adjacent to it to explode in fast succession. Normally, the boat had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, but on this trip it was loaded with over 2,500 former Union POWs anxious to get home.

“Wait! Union POWs? Then what was my great-great-grandfather doing on board? He was a Confederate soldier!” Walter immediately thought as he read the account.

“And why would he be on his way to St. Louis instead of getting off at Memphis?”

Recalling that most of East Tennessee was Union sympathizers, Walter began to wonder if the accounts of his war hero were wrong and went to a local Civil War cemetery where he was then living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In the Stones River Battlefield Park and National Cemetery, the superintendent had access to all Union soldier enlistments. Walter gave the man the name . . . Jacob L. Arbeiter, Townsend, Tennessee.

“Found him!” exclaimed the super, after searching several records which had been conveniently computerized. “He enlisted in 1862 at camp Dennison in Ohio . . . Jacob Leon Arbeiter, Townsend, Tennessee, age 28.”

“He must have been going back to Cincinnati to muster out. That was one of the places where he could get credit for time served in the army and document his eligibility for any back pay or future benefits.”

The superintendent then did some cross-checking and found more information.

“Uh-oh.” He muttered to Walter. It appears that wasn’t exactly the reason he was going back to Cincinnati. Cincinnati was also the major location of court-martials both during and after the war. Corporal Arbeiter was accused of being a deserter. He had crossed the lines and surrendered to the Confederacy who put him into a POW camp near Vicksburg. When the war ended, he was still there and transferred to Federal custody.  Evidently, he was being shipped to Ohio along with the freed POWs, not to muster out but to possibly be drummed out . . . or worse.” the superintendent sadly told Walter.

“So, Walter mused, “his death in the explosion of the Sultana may have saved him and his family from the ignominy of his being hung. But what about the tombstone? I guess the townsfolk just assumed he had joined the Confederacy like all the other boys.”

So ends the sad tale of a proud southern descendant of what was thought to be another Tennessee hero fatality of the “War of Northern Aggression.” Walter had found, instead of being the great-great grandson of a valiant Confederate soldier who died (probably of lingering wounds suffered in a late battle of the war), he was the great-great grandbastard of a Yankee deserter!

And there you have it . . . the results of shaking one’s family tree. The unvarnished truth! . . . or do you? The trouble with genealogy is one gets so much of the who, what, where, and when, but very little of the why.

Why did Jacob Arbeiter come to America? Why did he join up with the Union when everyone in his town were staunch rebels? Why did he later desert?

In Saxony, Germany, in the middle of the 19th century, there was still a substantial feudal system. Lords and serfs. The serfs were technically free men, but they worked for a prince, or duke, or similarly titled landowner, living on their Liege’s land and working for him like a sharecropper. There was really nothing to look forward to but fathering more generations of workers for the elite. Even the name, “Arbeiter,” was German for “worker.”  Jacob wanted to end that cycle. So, as a young man, he set out for America, the land of the free.

Once here, however, he discovered it wasn’t free for all. There were no black slaves in Townsend where he had settled, but Jacob shuttered at the sight of them just a few miles away in Maryville. It seemed like he was looking back at his own history. Still, it was the peculiar institution of the South. Wishing to get along with his neighbors, he kept his revulsion to himself.

When the war broke out, several local boys joined the Confederacy, but Jacob just kept working his little farm. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, in late fall of 1862, that a Union calvary division from Dennison, Ohio came through recruiting in the mainly sympathetic counties of East Tennessee. Jacob had a pang of conscience and felt he had to stand up for what he believed despite the beliefs of his immediate neighbors. His crops were all harvested, and what money he had from their sale, he left with the girl he was going to marry as soon as he returned . . . yes, it was Walter’s great-great-grandmother. Neither knew at the time that she was pregnant with his child. He saddled up his horse and, unbeknownst to his friends, rode off with the Union troops. At the time, he thought the war would be over in a matter of months and he would be back in time for spring planting.

The war did not end so quickly. Prior to the conflict, the southerners had boasted, “Just let them Damnyankees (yes, one word back then) come down here! We’ll whoop ‘em with corn stalks!”  They would soon learn the North didn’t fight with cornstalks! By late 1864, in a skirmish near Vicksburg, Jacob’s brother in arms and fellow German immigrant, Florian Muller, was gut shot. Jacob was by his side. Florian wasn’t immediately killed. He moaned and groaned pitifully until Jacob was so moved to help his friend that he rigged up a white flag, dropped his weapon, and carried the flag of surrender along with his wounded comrade to a medic’s tent within view, but across the line of battle.

The Confederate doctor could do nothing for Muller except ease his suffering by giving him Morphine. He died within an hour. Jacob was taken prisoner. He was held by them until the Federal troops finally captured the holdouts near Vicksburg. Jacob, however, instead of being set free, was immediately arrested on the grounds of desertion. Others in in troop had reported seeing him waving the white flag and assumed he had merely chickened out in battle. “The coward gave up rather than fight!” his accusers said. 

So, there you have it. The why. Walter’s great-grandfather wouldn’t have been born out of wedlock had Jacob not impulsively volunteered to fight for the freedom of slaves. He would not have died on the Sultana, an accused deserter, had his fellow troops realized his actions that day of fighting were a mission of mercy for his friend. His mistaken tombstone would have had a different inscription, a different death date, a different military designation, and a beloved wife’s marker next to it.

Yes, genealogy is great! But beware . . . the who, what, where, and when, are interesting, but sometimes the why is important, too!

August 13, 2021 18:19

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1 comment

Jon Casper
09:44 Aug 24, 2021

Fascinating story. It's always the why that gets lost in time, isn't it?

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