Decoration Day, the original name for Memorial Day, started in 1868, to remember those who fell in the Civil War, and to decorate their graves.
Although I have many relatives and ancestors who proudly served in the armed forces, from the earliest colonial wars to Afghanistan and Iraq, as far as I can tell, I had only a single ancestor who served in the American Civil War.
My 3x great grandfather, Edward Blanchard Chessman of Weymouth, Massachusetts was born 12 February 1829 to Ziba Chessman and Deborah White Blanchard, both also of Weymouth.
Edward worked in the booming industry of his day, shoe-making. He was 34 years old when he was drafted into the Union Army, Company “H” of the 32nd Massachusetts Infantry, for a three-year term, on 7 September 1863. When he marched out he left behind six minor children, and his wife, Emily White Orcutt, 8 months pregnant.
The official unit history lists the following activities for the 32nd Regiment while he served:
- At Warrenton and Beverly Ford till September 17.
- At Culpeper until October 11.
- Bristoe Campaign October 11-22.
- Advance to line of the Rappahannock November 7-8.
- Mine Run Campaign November 26-December 2.
But it is not clear to me whether Edward ever saw battle. At some early point Edward got sick, and in this pre-penacillin age this was tantamount to a death sentence. More men died of disease in the Civil War than died in battle. He died after serving less than four months, on 27 December 1863, at field hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, of chronic diarrhea. He is buried in Alexandria National Cemetery.
I doubt that any relatives made the journey to visit his grave for Decoration Day of 1868 or in the years following. Even with the widow’s pension, the family’s fortunes were greatly reduced. My great-great grandmother, Mary Kingman Chessman, was a domestic servant at age 13. Her older sister, Harriet Maria Chessman, was working in an eyelet factory at 15.
I suspect I was the first family member, at least in my line, to visit, when, on Memorial Day weekend 2014, I visited Alexandria and searched out his grave. The Boy Scouts were there, at the cemetery, for a brief ceremony and to place flags. One of them was kind enough to give me a flag, which I used to decorate Edward’s grave. It is better when it comes from family, I think.
A curious little side-story. In the 1930 federal census of Abington, Massachusetts, in the household of my great-grandfather, William Erastus Cushing, there is, as expected, my grandmother, Florence May Cushing, at age 18. But in the same household is her grandmother, the daughter of Edward Blanchard Chessman, Mary Kingman, the one who was put out as a servant at age 13. My grandmother never mentioned this fact to me, and I regret I never asked her more about her family. It still marvels me how quickly we can bridge the centuries. I knew someone who lived with a daughter of a soldier who died in the Civil War.
Note on sources: Aside from widely available census and town records, details of Chessman’s service and death can be found in the pension file of his widow Emily, WC25344.