Memorial Day – A Civil War Mystery

Last week I did a Facebook reposting of my annual thank you note to our veterans, identifying four in my direct maternal line. I started that posting the year after my mother died. Every Veteran’s Day she called her brothers, C.L. and Frank McMahan, and thanked them for their service to our country. I liked the idea of continuing her tradition and I added her father and great grandfather to the honor roll. Why just those four men?

First, the short answer for the original selection of McMahan veterans: I knew and loved three of them and spent hundreds of hours looking for the fourth. My grandfather, Charles Lee McMahan and his sons, Charles Lee, Jr. and Franklin served in WWI, WWII and the Korean War, respectively. George William McMahan, my grandfather’s grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Four bloody wars, each with untold acts of honor, bravery, sacrifice and horror.

Those who read the post this year might have seen my sister’s comment asking if we had Confederate soldiers in the family. A reasonable question since we are Southern, born and bred. Yes, we had had Confederate soldiers in our family, each with a story worth writing about. We also had veterans of the War of 1812, the Revolutionary War and before that, territorial battles on the western frontiers. But George William, our Union soldier, has a story with a twist and one of these days, I’ll write it all down.

Around the time I did the first posting, I finished a five-year search of genealogical records in which I successfully traced our branch of the McMahan family to their departure from Ireland around 1740. My direct line eventually settled in what is now western North Carolina and stayed in the same general area for more than 200 years. It wasn’t hard to find a George McMahan in the historical records, it just took ages to pin down the right George McMahan. There are (at least) two McMahan lines dating from that period in the North Carolina mountains. Each has a George William McMahan and, at one point, I thought there were three. When I started the research on my mother’s family, all trails of our direct line stopped with her grandfather, William Nelson, because I couldn’t find his birth records or determine which of the Georges was his father. His mother’s name was illegible on the few documents that listed her.

After years of piecing together records from family documents, interviews and internet records, I determined that there were only two Georges who were possible contenders for G-G-grandfather status. Each man linked my family to a very different path. One led back to English sympathizers in the 1770s, the other to revolutionists. One was in the coastal region of South Carolina, the other in the Western Carolina mountains. In genealogical research, it’s best to go with simple until it’s no longer an option – I concentrated on western North Carolina.

In 2011, my cousin and I interviewed some far removed cousins near Burnsville and Barnardsville. The Burnsville Historical Society reading room produced an inventory of cemeteries in the area which led me to tiny mountainside family plot that held the answers to a five-year search. There I found George William, father of William Nelson, son of Edmund, grandson of James and so on and so on back through the mists of Ireland. My vacation photos from that year are full of glamour shots of tombstones.

But back to the Memorial Day post and my sister’s question. While we had many ancestors who fought in the Confederate Army, our George McMahan was one of six men listed on the Union pension rolls for Yancey County, North Carolina. At first I thought it was a typo in the snippet of information I found on Ancestry.Com. Or yet another George rising up in the records to torment me. Then I remembered Sharyn McCrumb’s 2003 book, Ghost Riders, which introduced me to a history that is often passed over – that of mountain people who wanted no part of the war, but who ended up under conscription to one side or the other, and in many instances, both sides at different times. Again with the multiple Georges, but there are tantalizing indications that our George was both charged with desertion and decorated for bravery in addition to somehow earning a Union pension.

Some men were paid an enlistment fee and promised they’d be home for harvest or spring planting. In those years of terrible hardship, such offers would ensure food for their families. Other men where ‘enlisted’ against their will by roving bands of both Union and Confederate ‘recruiters’. Still others fought for the side they believed in and took up arms against their brothers. I have no idea where our George falls, but one day I hope to find out. In the meantime, I’m just grateful that he survived.

At the end of the Civil War, G-G-Granddaddy was a 21-year-old disabled veteran. George William went on to have seven children, outliving four of them and both of his wives. When he died in 1917, he was raising an orphaned grandson. The year after George William died, another of his grandsons, my grandfather Charles, went off to the Army and eventually to France and World War I. My heart believes George William knew what was coming and didn’t want to see war visited on his children’s children.
And so on and so on into the mists of time.

2011-05-19 15.57.39


Author: Cheril Thomas


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