WINCHESTER — Gary Rutherford already knew stories about a distant relative who fought during the Civil War and was captured and sent to New York.
When the relative was released from prison, Rutherford said, “they only gave him a dollar or something like that” so when he tried to return to the Winchester area he swam through rivers because he couldn’t afford to pay the ferry toll.
But Rutherford didn’t know about whether his distant relative’s five or six brothers had also fought in the Civil War. So he went to “Exploring Your Civil War Roots,” an event held on Saturday at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, to try to find out.
Cindy Dalton, a museum associate, came up with the idea of hosting an event where people can visit and learn about their Civil War ancestry.
“I thought it would be a good way to get people to come to the museum who really have a connection to the Valley and the people who fought and lived here,” Dalton said.
Throughout the afternoon, people hosting the event scoured through Census records and subscription sites to identify whether or not visitors’ ancestors fought in the Civil War and to provide some information about where those ancestors fought.
“We’re able to research both the Union and Confederate ancestors, inform [visitors about] which regiment they served in, when they served, in some cases if their brothers served with them or their fathers, the [battles they fought in] and whether or not they got a pension,” said Nicholas Picerno, the chair of the board of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, who was one of the people researching at the event.
Picerno said that he hoped the event would give people a better understanding of their ancestry and bring them closer to a tumultuous period in the country’s history.
After learning about ancestral connections to the Civil War, Picerno said, people want to learn more about their connections to the Civil War and visit the battlefields where their ancestors fought.
“They’re excited about the wonderment when they arrive” at a battlefield where an ancestor fought, Picerno said. “‘With my great-great-great grandfather here, what went on here 155 years ago? What did they see? Am I looking at what they saw?’ And it opens up new vistas to their family and to their family’s role during one of the most formative eras of American history.”
Over the course of the afternoon, people came with documents about their ancestors, seeking to learn more about their ancestral history. Visitors had varying degrees of knowledge about their Civil War ties: while some, like Rutherford, knew they had ties to the Civil War, others, like Tracie Anderson, did not.
Anderson came in with a genealogy of her family history on her mother’s side but said that she did not know if any of her ancestors fought in the war. She came with her family because of her son’s interest in history.
“We just wanted to see if our ancestors fought,” Anderson said.
After consulting with Picerno, she said that Picerno tracked down a distant relative who had fought.
Joe Sewell, meanwhile, found that one of his ancestors fought in the Battle of Second Manassas and at Gettysburg, and was hospitalized after each battle. He was also at Appomattox where the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia led to the collapse of Confederacy within a few weeks.
“The Lord was taking care of my great-great-uncle, I guess,” Sewell said.
And Rutherford learned a little bit more about the brothers of his distant ancestor. While he already knew that not all of the brothers had fought in the Civil War — one of them wasn’t even born until after the war ended — he learned at Saturday’s event that his distant ancestor appears to be alone among his brothers in fighting in the Civil War.