I had a chance to get to the local Family Search Center here in Charlottesville this morning. I was interested in finding out what they had that I could access. So I found that out and found a cousin (by marriage) at the same time. First, the cousin, Dottie Nicholson Sullivan was manning the center with her husband Wayne. She mentioned her family difficulties in tracing the Nicholsons back out of Virginia. I said, "Nicholsons? We may be related!"

She explained and, lo and behold, she is a descendant of a related family branch of the Wilsons, not directly related to me but to Clara Frances Nicholson of Madison, Virginia. Clara married the great-great-grandson of Edward Paul Dyer who was born in Topsham, Maine, in 1841.

Edward's story is interesting and quite unique among the Wilsons because he's one of the few who went south in the 1800s. He went to Virginia during the civil war with the 16th Maine Regiment. His story was thoroughly examined by Henry W. Bashore who wrote Old Rag Mountain, Rebirth of a Wilderness, in 2006[1]. Edward's story is one of two about Wilsons who went south included in my book.

The Shenandoah National Park

Bashore's book is about families displaced from the Shenandoah National Park in 1935 to return the land to the wilderness you see today on the Skyline Parkway only 30 miles or so up the road from here. The park meets all expectations but the story of its birth from this family's point of view is a sad tale indeed.

"Money didn't buy Shenandoah Park," said Randolph Shifflet, who was 8 years old when government men torched his family farm. "It was bought with tears, heartaches, grief and hardship."

Bashore goes on to say

"Your next visit to the park will have a fuller, deeper meaning for you if you consider the heartaches and hardships the mountain people endured when they were removed from their homes and their land. Because of their sacrifice, we have the privilege of enjoying the natural beauty of the mountain streams, forests, canyons and the majestic views from the mountain peaks." [2]

I couldn't said it any better myself. It's just gorgeous here in middle Virginia. We have views of the mountains – not overwhelming views but quick glimpses as you turn a corner or crest a hill. This is the first time I've lived near mountains since 1968 and it's one of the reasons why we live here. It's really hard to describe the lift I get every time I get rewarded with a mountain view just riding around town.

Virginia – Where All Us Southerners Originate From

Having the park so close is another benefit and it never occurred to me that I would find family ties to the park or even to Virginia. When we moved here in 2008, I was not interested in genealogy. I knew my mother had some family information but she had never delivered it to me.

Turns out I have major roots here in Virginia. The Elam family were some of the original settlers in the Bermuda Hundred shortly after the Jamestown colory failed. The Vances' first appearance in the New World was in Rockbridge County, Virginia in the late 1700s. The Maynards came through Mecklenburg County on their way to Edgefield, South Carolina, in the mid to later 1700s.

My husband family (without the Yankees) is even more typical. Every one of his ancestors came early to Virginia.

It just seems only right to have a Wilson connection to Virginia as well!

Edward Paul Dyer

Edward was born 16 Oct 1840[3] in Topsham, Maine to Charles Dyer and Mary Ann Margaret Alexander. Margaret's great grandmother was Jennet Wilson, the only known Wilson daughter of James Wilson. This is the original Wilson family that arrived with the Robert Temple ships in Maine in 1719.

Jennet married William Alexander and they moved closer to the ocean to Harpswell, Maine, to establish a family dynasty of their own. Many of their descendants were sea captains and it was their family I traced first after starting the Wilson project. Margaret, in fact, had two brothers, Joseph and Thomas, who were captains. Both their gravestones have that fact engraved on them.

Edward's mother was barely sixteen when she gave birth to Edward. I couldn't find a marriage or divorce record for Margaret and Charles but Margaret married William S Michaels on 4 April 1843[4] when Edward was only two so it is likely that William was the only father he had known. Charles died when Edward was just six years old.[5] His mother, Margaret, died 3 Jan 1861.

The next year both Edward and his half-brother joined the military together on 14 Aug 1862[6], the first day of service or the 16th Maine Regiment. Half-brother William was only 16 and lied about his age in order to be able to enlist.

We do know that William's death occurred 18 Feb 1863[7] in Virginia. There are no details – he may have been wounded before that. Edward is listed as deserting on 20 Jan 1863.[8] That is right after the disastrous Battle of Fredricksburg. The actual day was a horrible one for all of the 16th regiment. They were on the march in some incredibly bad weather with rain, under equipped and having just lost 13,000 men at Fredricksburg.

From A.R. Small's 16th Regimental History:

"January 20. A long wearisome march was now before us. The threatening rain came down in torrents. At 12:00 noon, we took up the line of march in the direction of Falmouth, crossed the railroad, continued up the Rappahannock until 9:00 p.m… The storm increased in power, and torrents of rain drenched us. In the darkness regiments and brigades became separated, companies went astray and whole divisions of troops were in helpless confusion."[9]

Desertion in the Civil War

Did Edward inadvertently get separated and lost as some have theorized? Or did he truly just desert? That question will probably never be answered but it is important to understand that desertion then was not unusual nor was it the shameful thing it became later. Not only that but the desertion rate of Union soldiers far exceeded that of the Confederates.

"The daily hardships of war, deficiency in arms, forced marches (which sometimes made straggling a necessity for less vigorous men), thirst, suffocating heat, disease, delay in pay,~ solicitude for family, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, and (though this was not the leading cause) panic on the eve of battle – these were some of the conditioning factors that produced desertion. Many men absented themselves merely through unfamiliarity with military discipline or through the feeling that they should be "restrained by no other legal requirements than those of the civil law governing a free people"; and such was the general attitude that desertion was often regarded "more as a refusal . . – to ratify a contract than as the commission of a grave crime." "[10]

That same article states in December of 1862, " no less than 180,000 of the soldiers listed on the Union muster rolls were absent, with or without leave." from the Union army. After the Mud March of January 20? If Edward deserted, I expect he was in good company with understandable reasons and no shame attached to his actions then. Add in the fact that his mother was dead and that he might have known about his half-brother's injuries and pending death and you have a recipe for desertion.

One of the tales told in Bashore's book is that Edward was "wrestling and playing around near the camp boundary. As they wrestled they moved closer to the camp boundary and eventually just walked awary from camp." A truly benign tale and just as possible as running away from the action though the weather on the 20th was certainly not conductive to such behavior. Just because his desertion date is listed as January 20, however, does not mean that is the actual date he left.

Working through all the family tales is the fun part of this story and there are many tales, not all chronicled in Bashor's book. Will we ever know the truth? Probably not but the information I unearthed during this research does help to discount some of those tales handed down from generation to generation.

— edited 13 June 2015

  1. Bashore
  2. Bashore, 3.
  3. Edward Paul Dyer, death certificate no. 3715, Virginia Bureau of Statistics, Richmond.
  4. "Maine, Marriages, 1771-1907," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/F4F3-496 : accessed 15 February 2015), William S. Michiels and Margaret Alexander, 04 Apr 1843; citing Brunswick,Cumberland,Maine, reference ; FHL microfilm 10,595.
  5. Maine State Archives; Cultural Building, 84 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0084; Pre 1892 Delayed Returns; Roll #: 32
  6. Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009.
  7. Maine State Archives; Cultural Building, 84 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0084; Pre 1892 Delayed Returns; Roll #: 75
  8. Historical Data Systems, comp.. American Civil War Soldiers [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999.
  9. A. R. Small, The Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Portland, Maine, B.Thurston & Company: 1886), 92.
  10. Desertion in the Civil War Armies, http://www.civilwarhome.com/desertion.htm, accessed 15 May 2014.