Monday, April 30, 2012

DEAD - Military Monday

I usually work backward in time when searching for resources to document an ancestor's life. From death to marriage to birth (and events in between). I often know the end of his or her life before the middle and beginning. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise to see "DEAD" stamped across one of the last pages of my great-great-grandfather Ellis Bickerstaff's Civil War Pension File. I knew he was dead and has been for nearly 105 years. And yet, seeing "DEAD" in big, bold letters brought an unexpected wave of sadness when I saw it.

In recent months I've been following Ellis's life as I've worked my way through his pension file, page by page, document by document, transcribing each. It seems like I've just been getting to know him.

Toward the end of 1890, at the age of 50, he filed a claim for disability for chronic catarrh and chronic bronchitis. At his physical exam in February, 1891, the doctor noted that Ellis was 6' tall, weighted 160 pounds, and was 51 years old. Several months later he was awarded a pension of $8.00 per month for disease of respiratory organs.

As I followed Ellis through his exams in 1890, 1892, 1894, and 1899, I saw a man who felt worse than the doctors recorded him to be. At each exam his height and weight decreased. His hair went from brown to gray. He was rejected for an increase each time he requested one until finally, in 1902, the doctors recommended an increase to $10.00 per month. By then he was 5' 10" tall, weighed 140 pounds, was 62 years old, and, the doctors noted, was a victim of senile debility. In 1905 the doctors recommended a pension of $12.00 per month.

Maybe he had never been in robust health. Maybe he had and the Civil War took it out of him. He had been a farmer in his early adulthood and a carpenter in the years after the war, but by 1890 even the doctors saw that his ability to work as a carpenter had become limited.

All the while I was transcribing I was cheering Ellis on. Try one more time for an increase. Don't work too hard, don't tire yourself beyond what you can do. Don't give up. Exercise a little and eat healthy foods. I hoped he'd found some medication that helped his respiratory symptoms and gave him a little peace from his aches and pains.

For 17 years I followed Ellis's trail through moves, affidavits stating he was who he said he was, and doctors' exams. And then, "DEAD." In 1907 Ellis took his own life. Perhaps the senile debility played the largest part in his choice but I can't help but think that he was worn out from dealing with his health problems.

Transcribing a pension file is almost like watching a life in fast forward. Unlike the near-perfect view of an ancestor one sees in a series of photographs, a pension file compresses years into the nitty gritty unpleasantness of illness. A few dozen pages of records span a dozen or more years. An ancestor goes from a single health problem to decreased health, multiple problems, senility, and death in the time it takes to read the records. The years go by quickly and the effects of the passage of time surprise the reader.

"Dead." Yes, I knew he was but it came so quickly and, once again, it fills me with sadness.


  1. I felt the same way when I saw those words on my ancestor's pension file. It is interesting how many increases civil war veterans had to apply for. Mine, did too.

  2. Poor Ellis! Thanks for sharing his story. I have some Civil War ancestors too. It's sad to read about the longterm effects that the War had on these soldiers' health.

  3. Nancy, I know just what you mean. In fact my last post was about the sadness I felt when reading about the terrible accident that took my ancestor's life. I'm sorry about Ellis--even though you knew the outcome, it doesn't make it easier to see that stamp on his file. I think you're right that he probably just got worn out battling his health problems.

  4. It is hard when an ancestor is worn down by health problems and takes his life. I had a great-great uncle who probably had similar experiences to your grandfather. He never had any children--and somehow some of his family records ended up in my branch of the family. I'm never quite sure what to do with them since I know there's a sad end to the story--yet I think they are important and that his story should somehow be told.

  5. I know the feeling of sadness you describe very well. Intellectually, I know my relative died. But still...

    Sometimes the heart overrides the brain. And isn't that a good thing?

    Dee @ Shakin' the Family Tree

  6. A beautifully written, but sad story of a life in decline.


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