All Blog Posts By Topic, History

Who Would You Have Been During The Civil War?

Genealogy tells us a lot about who we are and where we came from. With television series such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” gaining notoriety due to support from their celebrity stars, this art of ancestral research is not just for bookworms anymore.

I am fortunate to be the daughter of a genealogist and master researcher. My father was a librarian for the U.S. federal government (civil service), and he passed down to me his investigative research “bug.” In reviewing some of his extensive work on our family history, I began reflecting on one event that transformed the future of our nation—The Civil War. After watching TV shows such as “Hatfields & McCoys” (recently released on DVD), and “Hell on Wheels” (about the railroad being built), I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live back then. Of course, it helps that The Civil Wars has become one of my favorite bands since their 2011 release of “Barton Hollow,” so I am not surprised about my newfound curiosity regarding this time period.

Far from the Hatfields and McCoys

Unlike the Hatfield and McCoy families, who spent generations killing each other after the end of The Civil War, and who didn’t sign an official “truce” until 2003, my kinfolk were much calmer citizens during that era. According to my father’s research, my kin lived in and around Pike Township in Bradford, Pennsylvania, less than 80 miles south of New York, where most Irish immigrants settled in the mid-1800s. We were Yankees in support of the Union and worked mostly in farming, lumbering, general merchandise, and the buying and shipping of hay and grain.

Although following typical trades of the time, my families’ beliefs weren’t as common. Many Irish laborers eventually found themselves in competition for work with free blacks in the North. However, my family supported the views of the Republican Party when it emerged after 1854, challenging the Democrats. As members of this Grand Old Party (GOP), they were most likely abolitionists against slavery.

In addition, we were respected churchgoers (Christian Presbyterian), with many of us the first-born U.S. citizens of immigrants from Scotch-Irish descent. That seems odd, since most Irish of the time were Catholic Democrats. According to the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “women and chaplains contributed much to the support of troops [during The Civil War]. Presbyterians additionally fulfilled their spiritual duties by providing assistance to freed slaves.” This news gave me some joy, since I seem to have come from people with open hearts and minds….

When The Civil War officially began in 1861, many of my direct descendents were children under the age of five. It is estimated that during the mid-1800s in Philadelphia, about 230 miles from Bradford, where we lived, approximately one out of five newborns did not reach age two due to rampant illnesses such as yellow fever. My adult relatives during the war were aged 29-40, and most of them lived to be 60-90 years old, dying well after the war of heart attacks, pneumonia, or consumption. This was unlikely for most; however, considering the high death toll the war took on the North and South.

Irish Immigrants and the Draft

Born in Ireland, my ancestor, John Nesbit, had emigrated to the U.S. as a boy. There was significant immigration to the U.S. from 1845-1853 by his countrymen due to the Irish potato famine. John was a 40-year-old farmer in Pennsylvania when The Civil War began, and his sister, Jane, was 38 years old. John was happily married to Mary Fee for over 40 years (long after the war ended), which was uncommon during that era, and they had a large family of seven children.

In 1861, when The Civil War broke out, their eldest daughter, Adeline Jane Nesbit, was only 10 years old. Seven years after the war ended, Adeline was a tender 21 years of age and married a local man, Newton James Morrow, who was merely three years her elder. He was a preteen when the war began, so he survived the events of those years. According to research, at least five states in the North, including Pennsylvania, held an extensive draft in the fall of 1862, and many Northern volunteers in that season signed up under threat of being drafted. Pennsylvania drafted 20,500 men, according to Of these, 15,100 were sent into U.S. service. This includes the 171st Pa., which included able-bodied men aged 18-45 from Bradford County, excluding men already serving in the military, telegraph operators, railroad engineers, judges, government employees, school directors, ferrymen on post roads, and men with mental or physical disabilities. The Union army shipped most of these regiments to the occupied part of the North Carolina coast, and kept them far from action. There was even a group of Irish coal miners in another county that revolted against the mandatory draft. Newton was around 14 years old at the time. His father was 41 years old, but did not see the war.

Life at Home

As the fathers of some friends and neighbors were sent to war, young Adeline and Newton stayed home with their families, helping their mothers with household chores. According to, “little girls learned to sew by stitching a sampler and mending clothing. She might make a small quilt for her doll. Over time they would learn to make clothing and quilts. A child would help tend the garden, pick the vegetables and fruit, and snap peas for the family meal. Girls would learn to make biscuits and other simple cookery. The boys would bring in wood for the fire, buckets of water for the kitchen and help take care of the animals such as a cow, pigs, chickens and the horse. Older children would watch over the younger children.” Some board games and card games would have entertained them, and they may have enjoyed dried fruits or peppermint sticks as children.


When Adeline was 25 years old, America turned 100 years old on July 4, 1876. Four years later, Bradford, Pennsylvania, had a little over 9,000 residents. By 1910, there were about 15,000 people living there. Adeline and Newton were married for 45 years until she died at age 66 in 1917, the same year the U.S. declared war on Germany; Charlie Chaplin was a film star; Al Capone became “Scarface” from a knife fight; and John F. Kennedy was born. Together, Adeline and Newton raised three children, including a son named John Andrew Morrow, my grandmother’s father, who grew to be a well respected teacher in Pennsylvania, so much so that a school was named after him. He was a fisherman in his spare time and enjoyed the outdoors. John Andrew’s father, Newton, lived many years after Adeline died to the ripe old age of 93, even living through the 1929 stock market crash during the Great Depression. Newton died in 1941, the same year his home country of Ireland was bombed during World War II with raids on Belfast, Dublin, and other major cities.

Eight years later, my father was born, and so on, and so forth down the family line….

What’s Your Story?

So what stories has your family passed along? Where were your kin during The Civil War, the Great Depression, World War I and II? I would love to hear and share your stories…..





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