When researching family history, with all of the verification and double documentation that it entails, discovery of a misspelling or error in a name is common. At times, it can frustrate efforts to confirm the identity of an ancestor. In fact, rarely does an error in a name represent anything other than an obstacle - unless it is an alias. Then, it is something else altogether. The search becomes a quest, the question becomes a mystery and the excitement of solving the enigma builds and builds.
This is where I will begin my blog - with a 19th century ancestor whose very name elicits mystery - an ancestor with an alias.
Valentine, the father
Valentine Hensler, my 3rd great-grandfather was a German immigrant, husband and father to 10 children. For many years, he supported his large family as a humble carpenter in the town of Ottawa, Illinois. On August 15, 1861, Valentine's life started down a new, transformational path: he enlisted in the United States Army. In the following 17 years that remained of his life, this decision would resonate with all of the destruction and anguish that war inevitably brings.
From 1861 to 1864, Valentine served in the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that engaged in numerous battles and lost 471 men. One such battle was fought at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, a battle which - if you were a sharp, ambitious Brigadier General named U.S. Grant - you might say was pivotal or, perhaps, resulted in "unconditional surrender." On the other hand, if you were a 30-something private with a family waiting at home, the 6-day assault in which more than 800 men were killed (and 14,000 more missing and captured), might instead be remembered as bloody chaos, one of many memories only to be drowned out by alcohol and depression later in life. In fact, my 3rd great-grandfather, Valentine Hensler, was "broken down very much by the 3 months and 3 years service" and lived his final (likely wretched) days in the LaSalle County Asylum and Poor Farm - a place described by state reviewers in 1881 as "horrible" and "inexpressibly disgusting." He died there in August of 1878, of cirrhosis. Of course, it is impossible to know the true details of his existence; however, my investigative skills (and simple human, empathic sense) tell me that this veteran - this industrious family man, born in Germany and immigrant to the land of opportunity - suffered more than my words can describe. And unfortunately, the suffering was not his alone. In addition to the torment most assuredly endured by his family and friends - as it turns out - the war entrapped not one but two Hensler men.
Anthony - or is it Arthur?
What I know of Valentine I learned from census records, passenger manifests, county historical documents and Civil War military indices - weeks of research to piece together years of his life. However, it was not until I acquired Valentine's complete pension record that I discovered a mystery that would take months to unravel.
More than 10 pages deep into the 150-year old scrawl, I found a statement from Valentine's widow, Theresa Fay. (The pension record is comprised of pages and pages of records that document Theresa's efforts to prove her eligibility for her late husband's pension). In this notarized statement, it is noted that "the parents also had a son 15 years of age who was admitted in the service and continued three years and was a prisoner at Andersonville and contracted consumption and died 14 months after discharge..." Could this be? A prisoner of Andersonville? How much could this family possibly have suffered?
The only child of Valentine and Theresa that would fit that description (male, age 15 around 1861) would be Anthony - the oldest child, about whom I had not discovered much of anything. Immediately, I began to focus my research on Anthony, looking for any indication of military service and scanning census records for his whereabouts. Then, I found this:
A U.S. Civil War pension index record in the name of Arthur Fay (alias Anthony Hensler). Now, Fay was Anthony's mother's maiden name. That couldn't be a coincidence. And, Cinderella?! That must be someone in my family. Only several more weeks of research (including more than a 100 pages of documents and a trip to Georgia) would reveal the truth.
Lisa Medina, here to share the history of families - one story at a time. .
Copyright © 2020-2021 Lisa Medina Genealogist & Family Historian