The Sinews of War: A Day at the Arsenal

I wouldn’t have visited the museum at the Watervliet Arsenal if my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney hadn’t served there.

My interest in armaments and military history is mild, to put it mildly. And I wasn’t sure how useful the visit would be in giving me specific insights about my ancestor’s life there. Also, it was pouring chilly rain as I set out.

Fortunately, I didn’t talk myself into a detour to a nice warm Starbucks.

Housed in the historic Iron Building, the Watervliet Arsenal museum includes a wealth of artifacts, displayed in the context of the lives of Arsenal workers and residents. (Fun fact: The poet Stephen Vincent Benet was a third-generation resident. His grandfather and father were both commanders there, and the arsenal’s Benet Laboratory is named in their honor.)

Civil War-era workers on shop floor at the Watervliet Arsenal. Display at the Watervliet Arsenal Museum, Watervliet, NY.

Watervliet has operated since 1813, but since Martin’s Army service occurred between 1854 and 1867, I concentrated on the Civil War-era displays. Interestingly, Watervliet did not manufacture the actual cannon guns in that conflict. It made everything else, such as the carriages they sat upon, the shells they fired, and the ammunition cases that held the cannonballs.

Behind a metal door at one end of the exhibit hall is a huge, echoing room that feels off-limits to visitors, but is actually a particularly cool exhibit area. On one side is a wealth of rare antique cannons and weaponry. On the other is an array of metalworking machinery, arranged to give a sense of what an arsenal shop floor might have looked like back in Martin’s day.

At peak capacity during the Civil War, the arsenal had 2,000 employees, one-quarter of whom were children. At first only boys were hired, but when the arsenal began manufacturing cartridges for the Sharps carbine in 1864, it was discovered that the smaller hands of little girls were better suited to rolling the linen cylinders.

“I was nine years old,” recalled a child worker many years later. “All of us little girls sat on a long bench, our feet not quite touching the floor, and we filled cartridges all day long … I worked from seven in the morning until six at night.”

The curator, a helpful and erudite fellow called Scott, clarified the term “artificer,” an enigmatic job description in my ancestor’s Civil War pension file. It’s an elegant way of saying “machinist”; however, Martin’s particular machines and skills are lost in the mists of time.

Display at the Iron Building at the Watervliet Arsenal of 19th-century metalworking equipment.

Since my visit coincided with the last of the day’s visiting hours, Scott was able to show me the barracks where Martin would have lived as a soldier. (In the 1860 census, Martin has two addresses – one at the arsenal, and one at a house in the town of West Troy with his wife Mary and their oldest child Joseph, my great-grandfather.)

It was not a day (or a setting) for poring over records. But thanks to the museum and the kindness of its curator, I had a grand time walking in Martin’s footsteps for an afternoon.


Going to Church(es), While I Can

St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, Watervliet, NY.

I’m slowly working my way through a number of posts about a trip I took recently to Albany and Rensselaer counties in New York. With Sunday just around the corner, how about a picture of a church?

I always feel vaguely subversive, hanging around other people’s parishes in the middle of the week in broad daylight. Without a choir rehearsal to attend or a child to pick up from CCD, I’m a bit of a miscreant. I’m just snapping pictures and wandering around curiously, all because some people related to me worshipped here once, a long time ago.

But curiosity pays off in the form of a picture of St. Brigid’s Church in Watervliet, N.Y., the parish where my great-great grandparents Martin and Mary (Mahon) Haigney raised their family. They would have called it “St. Bridget’s” in their day. All of their eight children were baptized there, the first in 1859 and the last in 1874.

St. Bridget’s was pretty new in Martin’s and Mary’s time. Both of them Irish immigrants, they joined an early parish community that also included many refugees from the 1848 revolutions in Germany and France. According to a parish history, the church itself was only completed in 1851. Its first full-time pastor arrived in 1854, after a couple of years during which Masses were said by visiting Jesuit priests from South Troy, a boat ride away across the Hudson River. I regretted I wasn’t able to enter the building to see the stained glass windows, which looked impressive even from the outside. Especially because, for all its history, St. Brigid’s faces an uncertain future.

St. Brigid's in about 1906, with its original steeple that was destroyed by lightning in 1948. From "St. Brigid's Parish: A History of Its People And Their Accomplishments."

With the Diocese of Albany in consolidation mode, the parish has merged with neighboring Immaculate Heart of Mary. Masses are still being said at St. Brigid’s, for now, while a parish planning committee ponders what’s next. The most recent church bulletin says there is no final decision yet on the fate of either St. Brigid’s or St. Patrick’s, another parish also consolidated with IHM.

It’s sad to see these difficult choices playing out. Long ago, every neighborhood had its own parish in towns like Watervliet; it was just the way things were. Today, the diocese says the population isn’t there to support all the church buildings, and some must close. For a genealogist, it means wondering where the records are going to be. For the community, it means a part of history is going away, and it seems it can’t be helped.


Gut Reactions: A 19th-Century Medical Adventure

I’ve blogged already about the Civil War pension records pertaining to Martin Haigney, my great-great-grandfather who served at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. Previously I wrote about the joys of discovery, the fun of organizing all that paperwork and the larger social implications of the pension system — all lofty, rewarding stuff.

Today, however, we descend into the bowels of the file. Literally.

It started at the dining room table, which was probably not the best place to be dissecting a Civil War medical record. Still, when I noticed not one, but four diagnoses of cholera in Martin’s medical history, I couldn’t help blurting out my astonishment.

“Cholera? What’s that? Is it serious? Do you throw up?” The eldest daughter suddenly lost interest in her cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

“Four times? That’s highly unlikely,” said Mr. Archaeologist, who in real life is an actuary and keeps track of statistics and stuff.

“Shush, you two,” I said, re-checking the page. [Note: Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary, not a life actuary, so it was OK to shush him. -- Ed.]

Yes, there it was on the record, four times. Here is the transcribed list from a War Department memo of 24 January 1899:

  • Aug. 7 to 9 54, Cholera Morb.;
  • Sept. 18 to 20, 54, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 5 to 8, 55, Pneumonia;
  • Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 57, Sick;
  • Nov. 13 to 15, 57, Influenza;
  • Aug. 16 to 19, 59, Cholera Morb.;
  • Aug. 8 to 12, 60, Diarrhea;
  • Sept.  6 to 9, 61, Cholera Morb.;
  • Nov. 2 to 4, 61, (no diagnosis);
  • Aug. 20, 62, Diarrhea;
  • Feb. 2 &3, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 17 to 30, 64, Measles;
  • June 9 to 11, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Aug. 5 to 7, 64, Dysentery;
  • Jan. 23 to 29, 65, Tonsillitis;
  • July 11 to 12, 65, Diarrhea;
  • Jan. 5 to 12, 66, Dysentery;
  • June 29 to July 1, 66, Rheumatism from exposure to cold & rain, ret’d to duty as – Hagney, Corp[? illegible];
  • July 24 to 26, 66, Cholera Morbus;
  • Jan. 19 to 21, 67, Lumbago, ret’d to duty;
  • Nothing further found

“Eeeww,” said the eldest daughter, who had managed to finish her Pop-Tarts anyway.

“That’s some gut,” said Mr. Archaeologist brightly. [Note: Actually, his comments have been somewhat edited -- Ed.]

Indeed. But what was going on with all those reports of cholera? Everyone knows how how swiftly cholera claimed its victims. From what I’ve read, it was possible to survive it back in the day, once. But to have it four times and live to get a pension? C’mon.

It turns out this is a classic example of reading a 19th-century list with 21st-century eyes. The clue is in the fourth instance, where the diagnosis is spelled out as “cholera morbus.” A quick Google led me to the Wikipedia entry on gastroenteritis, where my mystery was solved, although I had to scroll to the bottom of the entry for the payoff.

Before the 20th century, the term “gastroenteritis” was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or “cholera morbus”, among others, or less specifically  as “griping of the guts”, “surfeit”, “flux”, “colic”, “bowel complaint”, or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.

The listing of my great-great-grandfather’s ailments certainly seems to point to a chronic gastrointestinal condition. Or maybe to a chronically compromised drinking water supply.

So consider “cholera morbus” your archaic diagnosis of the day. And since I’m feeling generous, here’s an extensive list of archaic disease terminology to consult at your leisure.

I recommend waiting until after breakfast, however.



NewsClips: 1961: Another Year, Another Birthday Party Story

Today’s clip is another in a series of articles about birthday parties for my great-great Aunt Maggie (Haigney) Roache (or Roach, or Roche). I know — I think it’s a little odd myself, and I used to be in journalism and everything. What can I say; the Troy Times Record just kept covering her birthday parties. I’m beginning to get the feeling she was buddies with somebody on the city desk.

A few months ago I wrote about this article and did a partial quote of it, but to be thorough for my NewsClips project, I’m including the full text here. It’s another engagingly written story with charming details about Maggie’s feisty personality. However, as my notes indicate, it contains inaccuracies, too. You do have to be careful about newspaper stories. But they can be tremendously valuable in pointing out new avenues for research.

Mrs. Roach Notes 91st Birthday


How Ablebodied A Man? The $64,000 Pension Question

You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.

Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.

Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?

Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.

Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.

As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of  war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.

But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”

As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.

Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890  by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.

That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders

He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half

These guys had the right talking points:

1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”

2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”

3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.

Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”

Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.


Things To Do When The Pension File Arrives

Author’s Note: A Civil War pension file, if your ancestor has one, is a marvelous thing for a nosy descendant. If you’re not sure what one is and how to get one, study up at the National Archives site.

First, the preliminaries: Ask spouse where the mail is. Discover package from National Archives in Washington, D.C., containing your great-great-grandfather’s complete Civil War pension file. Wander abstractedly away from spouse and bewildered children. Tell them there’s mac and cheese in the cupboard, you think.

On to business:

1. Open the envelope. (It will look like something from Land’s End, but heavier.)

2. Don’t hyperventilate at the “Dear Patron” notice, which does look ominous.

This is a standard “We Regret” letter, apologizing in advance for copies that are blurry or faded due to the original document’s age and wear. My file didn’t contain any illegible Xeroxes, although I’ve heard accounts of disappointing copies.

3. Don’t just rummage.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! You are not going to follow this direction at all, I bet. I tried to, for about thirty seconds.  I was going to be all cool and calm and organized and WAIT A MINUTE! THAT’S MY GG-GRANDMA’S BIRTH NAME!! WHEEEE! WHAT ELSE IS IN THERE?????

[****Cue feral genealogy sounds.****]

So. Ahem. After you finish rummaging and have slept off your genealogy buzz (this will perhaps be two days later):

4. Go through the file carefully and put the paperwork in order.

This will take time, because in all likelihood your file will be a mess, whether you rummaged in it or not. The archive folks photocopy what they find and send it along. They cannot be blamed if, over the last 120 years, a succession of clerks was sloppy about filing and re-filing. Do your best to put the file into chronological order, examining the paperwork carefully to make sure that multi-page documents haven’t been mixed up. Be careful with date stamps — they note the date a document was received at its destination, not when it was created. These two dates are usually close together, but not always. Update: Craig Scott, in the comments, makes the good point that it’s not uncommon to find more than one pensioner in a file — a soldier and his widow would be the obvious example. Just another thing to keep in mind when sorting.

5. Make copies of the file.

What sort of copies depends on your style. Some like writing notes directly on paper copies. I prefer making my notes in a separate notebook or Word file, and scan the file pages to my hard drive(s). But whichever way you go, copying is a good idea.

6. Make an inventory of the file.

Just a suggestion, but it can be very helpful.  Here’s what the start of my file summary looks like.

DOCUMENT DATE DESCRIPTION
1. File Label None No. 592-963Veteran: Martin Haigney

Rank: 1st class Pvt.

Service: Ordnance Dept. US Army

CAN no. 12841 Bundle No. 16

2. Declaration for Invalid Pension

Notes: Regular Army enlistment records show Martin’s first enlistment was in 1854, not ’57.

Age given here indicates a birth year of 1833, not 1831, the year he specifies in Doc. #27.

17 July 1890 Initial application for pension under the Act of June 27, 1890. Martin gave his age as 57, his initial enlistment as March 1857. He re-enlisted in March 1864.Reason for applying was inability to earn support by manual labor due to age and rheumatism in shoulders and right leg.

Martin signs with an X, being unable to write his name.

Tabulated information soothes me. It also helps me prioritize. For instance, the first document I worked with was No. 16, the marriage and family questionnaire my ancestor filled out in 1898. It had a couple of birth dates for his children I’d never known, plus information on his spouse and date of marriage. My chart helps me pinpoint discrepancies quickly, and when I’m done with the scanning, it will help me navigate my online files quickly, too.

Finally, the best part:

7. Make a list of all the interesting new ideas you can investigate because of the information in this file.

So that’s what I’m doing with my great-great grandfather’s pension file, and it’s just scratching the surface. What are your tips?

Further reading: I enjoyed this informative group of articles about assessing pension files. One caution, however: the fees quoted for obtaining a complete file from NARA are out of date. But there are very good case studies and tips.


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