Did They Really Serve? A Civil War Research Cautionary Tale

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

If you are a regular reader you know that the Civil War era and research in its records are passions of mine. I have written about my two Dodd ancestors who served in the 6th Connecticut Infantry and my Smith ancestor who did not serve and my effort to find out why. (The current status of that research indicates that he was employed in a paper factory. Did that company make a product used by the military? If so, I may have begun to unravel that particular puzzle). I have also written about my son’s paternal great-great grandfather who, although originally a soldier in a Massachusetts unit, ended the war serving in a Maryland unit under an assumed name. It seems fitting as we continue to commemorate the sesquicentennial of this conflict that I share another example, again from my son’s paternal line, although this time on his grandmother’s side.

The Curtis family of Virginia and West Virginia is my current personal research focus. My son, although he has Union ancestors and despite his West Virginia birth, has lived almost his entire life in Virginia, and really wanted to discover if he had a Confederate ancestor. I thought that his Curtis line might offer the best possibility. I believe (although the process of documentation has not been completed), that this family line descends from John Curtis of Sussex County. Here, however, I will focus on John’s grandson, Claiborne Alexander Curtis.

Claiborne, the son of Churchwell and Lucy Curtis, was born in 1791 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and died in 1868 in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Claiborne and his first wife, Nancy/Anne Smith, had four children: Eliza, James Parker, Lucy, and Mahala. In 1833, after Nancy’s death in 1830, Claiborne married Martha Lucas Kirks, and the couple had one son, Claiborne Alexander Curtis, Jr., born in 1834.1 Claiborne was a Methodist preacher in Mecklenburg and Botetourt Counties, and later served in the same capacity within the Disciples of Christ while living in Raleigh County, Virginia/West Virginia.

As I was searching the family through the various federal censuses on Ancestry, I noticed in the right-hand side bar that family tree information was available for Claiborne. While I don’t normally consult such resources early in my research, I decided to have a quick look. When printed, the detailed information for Claiborne covered three pages, with detailed notes included for some entries and sources indicated for many. However, when analyzed, these sources were almost always other family trees – not a good sign. Of particular interest, however, was an annotation indicating that his eldest son, James P., served as a private in the 41st Virginia Infantry, and his youngest son, Claiborne, Jr., served in the 7th West Virginia Cavalry.2 I decided to investigate these two pieces of information on the Fold3 web site.

I looked for Claiborne Alexander Curtis, Jr.’s military record first. The family tree information indicated that he had served in the 7th West Virginia Cavalry, enlisting on 26 January 1864 and mustering out on          1 August 1865. I located his record only after discovering that the 7th West Virginia Cavalry was a Union unit. Claiborne was listed in the company’s descriptive book as being 26 years old, 5’7” tall, with a dark complexion, black eyes, and black hair. However … he reported for duty and was enrolled in Raleigh County, Virginia (later West Virginia) on 25 December 1861, and was listed on a detachment muster-in roll for Lt. Dunbar’s Company (Co. H) of the 7th in Buffalo, Putnam County, Virginia (later West Virginia) six days later. He was consistently noted as present on company muster rolls (listed on one as company cook) through 25 November 1862, when he was reported as absent without leave. He was included on a list of deserters dated 8 April 1863. His muster out roll, dated in Wheeling, West Virginia, on 23 January 1865, noted that he deserted on 12 November 1862 “in Fayette County has never returned.” The company’s descriptive book further states that he “deserted company while on a scout in Fayette Co., Virginia, Nov 12/62.”3 So – no Confederate ancestor to be found here, and an example of someone’s inaccuracy in extracting information from the military record.

My second search in Fold3 was for Claiborne, Jr.’s elder brother, James P. Curtis. The family tree information indicated that he was a private in the 41st Virginia Infantry. I quickly found an index record for a James P. Curtis in Co. B of the 41st Virginia Infantry.4 However, with only the jacket and one card including the middle initial “P,” coupled with a notation that this individual had been transferred to the Confederate Navy in 1864, I felt that further documentation was necessary to prove that this James Curtis was the correct individual. I first looked for information on the 41st Virginia. The synonym for Co. B was the Confederate Grays, and the company was formed from Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover Counties, as well as the City of Richmond. Supporting this geographic description was the fact that this James enlisted in Manchester, just across the James River from Richmond. This information made little sense for “my” James P. Curtis, who in 1860 was a resident of Giles County, Virginia – quite a distance away. Before I abandoned the search completely, however, I consulted United States, Civil War Confederate Papers of Citizens or Businesses, 1861-1865, also on Fold3.5 This resource may eventually point to a resolution to this identity problem: “Jas P Curtis” was exempted from service as a “Minister of. Religeon” [sic]. I will continue my research to confirm that James did serve as a minister, as did his father. Once again – I found that the Ancestry family tree was incorrect in its military annotations and once again – no Confederate ancestor.

I analyzed the Curtis family information in my own database to determine who else might have had Civil War service. I decided to see if James P. Curtis’ eldest son, Clayborn/Claiborne McChesney Curtis, born in 1845 in Virginia, might have served. I once again turned to Fold3 and discovered a record for C. M. Curtis, who was a private in Co. F of the 45th Infantry.6 This individual enlisted on 1 April 186[?] at Narrows, Virginia, and joined Co. F, which was a company of sharpshooters from Bland County. Narrows, Virginia, is located in Giles County, where Clayborn was living in the 1860 census in his father’s household,7 and the adjacent county to Bland. Although the year of enlistment was not completely filled in on the card, it would make sense that he joined later in the war as he was only 16 or 17 years old when war broke out in 1861. A muster roll dated 1 April 1864 noted that he was absent without leave since 31 March 1864. He must have returned as he was listed on receipt rolls for clothing dated 11 August, 17 September, and 11 December 1864.6 Finally – a Confederate ancestor, my son’s great-great grandfather! Mission accomplished! Further research will determine if Clayborn received a pension from Virginia after the war.

I subtitled this article “a cautionary tale” as it is a splendid example of why it is important not to accept someone else’s research and why analysis of information discovered through research is crucial. My look at the family tree on Ancestry gave me clues (albeit often partially or completely inaccurate) that prompted my further research and documentation. It is unfortunate, however, that such incomplete or incorrect information is then copied exponentially in other trees when just a little research could provide accurate information.

1 1850 U.S. census, Raleigh County, Virginia, population schedule, District 59, pages 14-15 (stamped), dwelling 200, family 200, Claiborne [A.] Curtis; NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 972.

2 “Public Member Trees,” database, Ancestry.com

(http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/40312644/person/19495861289?ssrc=  : accessed 5 January 2013), “Rosencrantz Family Tree,” entry for Claiborne “Clyde” Alexander Curtis (1791-1868); submitted [unknown date] by William Rosencrantz.

 3 “Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of West Virginia,” database, Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 5 January 2013), entry for Claiborne A. Curtis, Co. H, 7th West Virginia Cavalry; citing National Archives microfilm publication M508, roll 71.

4 “Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served from Virginia Units,” digital images, Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 5 January 2013), entry for James P. Curtis, Co. B, 41st Virginia Infantry; citing National Archives microfilm publication M324, roll 862.

5 “Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens and Business Firms, 1861-1865,” digital images, Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 5 January 2013, entry for Jas. P. Curtis; citing National Archives microfilm publication M346, roll 220.

6 “Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served from Virginia Units,” digital images, Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 5 January 2013), entry for C. M. Curtis, Co. F, 44th Virginia Infantry; citing National Archives microfilm publication M324, roll 885.

7 1860 U.S. census, Giles County, Virginia, population schedule, [Mechanicksburg P.O.] pages 123-4, dwelling 835, family 779, Claiborne Curtis; NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 1345.




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