George Washington Powell
Company C, 26th Illinois Infantry
Photo and story graciously submitted by Linda Garrett
A Short Trip Down A Long Paper Trail
Several months ago my family came into possession of a hand-tinted photograph of a young Civil War soldier. The eyes that peered out at us from a distance of thirteen decades belonged to my husband's great-great-grandfather, George Washington Powell, who served in the Union Army from February 1864 until July 1865. Below the photo's image area was a helpful inscription listing Powell's age (17), rank (Private), and regimental assignment (Company C, 26th Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry), as well as an apparent reference to the date the proud soldier posed for his portrait (February 5, 1864). Looking at the soldier's features, I was compelled to find out more about him. A colleague who is well-versed in genealogical pursuits suggested that I initiate a National Archives search of Powell's military service and pension application files.
The success of such a search depended on the amount of information I could provided about Powell. Fortunately, I had access to extensive genealogical record pertaining to the Powells of Illinois thanks to a thorough search conducted by my husband's grandmother ( the granddaughter of George Powell). A detailed copy of the family tree provided the dates and locations of Powell's birth and death in addition to specifics concerning his marriage to Malinda Brenneman Miller three years after the end of the Civil War. Relying on these details as well as those included in the photograph's inscription, I completed two copies of Nation Archives Trust Fund Board Form 80, one for military records and one for pension records.
Two months after submitting my initial request, I received a packet from the National Archives containing a copy of Powell's military service records. Suddenly, the two-dimensional, stiff-necked kid from Illinois began to transform into a living, breathing seventeen-year-old foot soldier.
Powell's military paper trail began on February 5, 1864, when they young farmer from Mulberry Grove, Illinois, swore his allegiance to the United States of America and agreed to oppose the enemies of his nation. The date on the volunteer enlistment form matched the date on the photograph. At least one mystery was cleared up. I had wondered why the infantryman's face and uniform did not show any signs of the ravages of war. Now it was clear that he had not seen any action, having volunteered that very day for service. Powell's bold signature on the enlistment form exuded confidence and anticipation -- a striking contrast to the spidery scrawl on the second page of the form with which another Illinois farmer, William C. Powell, consented to his underage son's voluntary enlistment in the Union Army.
The remainder of Powell's military records consisted of muster rolls which tracked his military pay for the entire eighteen months of his service. A bounty of $60.00 was paid out to the recruit on February 5, 1864, the day he reported for duty at Camp Butler, Illinois. a notation referring to a pay "stoppage" appeared on muster rolls for the first two pay periods of 1865. On each occasion, $0.45 was withheld from Powell's pay for "damage done to ordnance stores". Although the company copyist neglected to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding these episodes, the story handed down within the Powell family attributes the fines to a lost rifle.
According to muster-out records dated July 20, 1865, three months after the war's end, Powell received a bounty of $140.00 with the promise of an additional $160.00 to follow at an unspecified time. Out of that final payment, Powell, whose rank was upgraded to Corporal upon his discharge, reimbursed the United States $23.38 for "cloth[ing] in kind or money adv[ance]d," as well as $6.00 for arms, equipment, etc. Apparently, it was not unusual for a newly discharged Civil War veteran to take his uniform, gun and miscellaneous equipment home as souvenirs.
While Powell's military records were intriguing, the pension records actually yielded more information about the foot soldier's wartime experiences. Five years after the end of the war, Powell applied for a disability pension. Various documents trace the complex process that the veteran endured in order to be added to the government's Invalid Pension Roll. These pension records afforded the first glimpse into Powell's whereabouts during his Civil War duty.
Powell, who was married and teaching school at the time, appointed an attorney in 1870 to prosecuted his first official disability claim. Dyspepsia, Powell's affliction, was not uncommon among Civil War infantrymen. Although we associate the malady with mere indigestion, making it a dubious justification for disability benefits by today's standards, in Powell's day the condition more likely was related to serious stomach ulcers.
According to Powell's formal pension claim, he contracted the disability as a result of exposure during a march from Scottsboro, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia. Although he specifically stated in that first pension application that he was not hospitalized because of the malady, an affidavit signed by one of Powell's compatriots offered a somewhat contradictory account of the claimant's version of events. Within the undated document, entitled "Proof of Disability," veteran Joseph N. Maxey certified in the company of the Bond County, Illinois, Justice of the Peace and two witnesses that Private Powell "contracted chronic diarrhea which was followed by Dyspepsia in the Piles [i.e., hemorrhoids], caused by the exposure incident to the service." He went on to state that Powell was hospitalized in Marietta, Georgia, for about a month. Despite this apparent discrepancy in facts, Powell was awarded a pension which, at the time of his death in July of 1896, amounted to $6.00 per month.
The string of George Powell's pension-related documents did not end with his death. His widow, Malinda, initiated her own claim for pension benefits in September, 1896, bringing in witnesses who attested to the Powell family's bleak financial situation. According to affidavits filed in Bloomington, Illinois, two family friends stated that Widow Powell's personal property consisted of approximately $200.00 worth of household goods. Moreover, she had no source of income and was "dependent upon her own exertions for her existence and that of her minor children." Her perseverance paid off, though. Barely two months after her husband's death. Malinda Powell began receiving a widow's pension of $8.00 per month plus $2.00 per month for each of her three minor children. Curiously, she still had to provide additional evidence in her claim the following year. However, there was no indication among the records that her benefits were ever interrupted.
Following a 31-year gap in official records, there is a brief notation indicating that Malinda Powell's pension payment was increased to $40.00 per month in 1928. The final document, dated November 3, 1932, authorized cancellation of Malinda Powell's pension benefits due to her death the previous month.
It has been suggested that the Civil War was this nation's first modern war. Certainly, it was the first time that such voluminous records were generated to track the everyday comings and goings of a war's participants. Over a century later, the face of one determined Illinois farmer who marched off to war has been brought to life because of such materials.
(printed in Fall issue, 1994)
(I have never met Alice Ross, but her mother-in-law is my second cousin. Our grandfathers were brothers; Malcolm G. Powell - mine, and Harold Powell - hers) - Linda Garrett
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