In May of 1861, a 20-year-old farm boy with dark hair and dark eyes joined up with the 15th Illinois Infantry, mustering in as a private.
He’d come west from New York, an orphan who could neither read nor write. What little schooling he had came from a local girl named Cynthia. Now he marched to war with his brother Seneca, who was slightly younger and a little bit shorter.
Hundreds of thousands of young farmers did the same thing. But I write today about Clarence Perry Bristol because he is my great-great-grandfather – a portrait on my wall, a sour-faced stranger with a long beard.
Almost everything I know about him I learned on Thursday, an investigation inspired by a slow afternoon. For most of my life, talk of Clarence rarely rose beyond a casual mention at family gatherings – an off-handed remark about a long-dead Union soldier.
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In more recent years, as my mother cleaned out her attic, I inherited a handful of silvery pictures. I hung them on a wall I don’t look at very often, where Clarence glares at me from the 19th Century.
So for Memorial Day, I decided to scrub the dust off this ancestor. He never talked about the war. The oldest surviving members of my family know a handful of details. But with a decent Web browser, you can piece together a fair portrait in a few hours. Handwritten census reports that show my great-great-grandfather’s name at age 9 can be gotten as easily as ordering a pizza.
And even though I found more questions than answers, I now have a fair idea why Clarence kept silent. The barest outline of his part in the war tells me that much.
Clarence stood 5-foot-10. He went by Perry, a nickname that turns up in most of his Civil War documents and is also scratched across his soldier’s photograph with a pin. He wore his cap to the side and some kind of neckwear in a large bow.
I couldn’t find any trace of him in the years immediately after 1861, but his record shows that he stayed with the 15th Illinois until January of 1864, which means he would have marched to Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg, following Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
If Clarence fought in those three battles, and there’s no reason to suppose that he didn’t, he walked away from fights that killed more than 9,000 men.
Including his brother.
I’d never heard of Seneca Bristol, my great-great-great-uncle. I’m not sure anyone in my family knew he existed. But it makes sense that Clarence would let history bury him, never speaking his name. To this day, there are family trees posted online by my distant relatives, explaining that Seneca disappeared during the Civil War. Nobody knew when, where or how he died.
But the Internet user has resources unavailable to Clarence and his kin. With a few clicks, I discovered that Seneca joined the Union Army three months after his big brother, and he fought with a different Illinois infantry: the 45th. He died at Fort Donelson, where his bones still mingle with the soil.
Most of what I’d found wouldn’t interest anyone but family. But this detail is too important to skip, even though it’s the one fact I already knew. In 1864, Clarence won promotion to lieutenant with the 66th Regiment in Vicksburg, U.S. Colored Infantry – a unit made up entirely of black soldiers.
Here is where online muster rolls and battle histories fall short. How I’d love to sit with Clarence and ask him about this unbelievably historic chapter in his life. But even if I could materialize in 1870 and find my great-great grandfather as a grain-buyer, married to Cynthia French, the woman who taught him to read, I’d get the same response he has given the ages.
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