“Some people say you achieve immortality through your children,” said the minstrel.
“Yeah?” said Cohen. “Name one of your great-granddads, then.”
The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett.
In the early summer of 1862, 10 days before the first anniversary of the savage battle of
Bull Run during the opening days of the Civil War, Captain Milton Graham worked to assemble a new cavalry regiment to help defend Kentucky against the secessionists. Just outside the town of Harrodsburg, men from Washington, Madison, and Mercer counties flowed in, and Graham quickly organized four companies for the new 11th Kentucky Cavalry: A, D, C, and F.
Walking among the men who answered the call was 43 year-old Greenberry Shanks. Leaving behind his wife, Sarilda, and one year old son James, Private Shanks prepared with the others for a sudden move to the capital of Frankfort, a response to Confederate invasion of the Commonwealth. Move he did, part of Company D, arriving in Frankfort on 22 July. Another company, Company B, was recruited there, and then the men were on the march again, this time to Louisville, Kentucky. The remaining companies were recruited over the following weeks, and on 22 September the regiment was officially mustered into service.[i]
Over the next three years, the 11th Kentucky Cavalry served gallantly and participated in several notable campaigns, including the pursuit and eventual capture of the notorious Confederate General John Hunt Morgan in July of 1863.[ii] But Greenberry, like that of many who fought during this pivotal time of our nation, has largely been swallowed up by history. His military records are sparse, and indicate a service record frequently interrupted by sickness and, once, being absent without leave. He survived the war, and was mustered out with much of the rest of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry on 13 July 1865. Whatever ailment that dogged Greenberry over the course of the conflict evidently continued to plague him, as evidenced by a pension request in 1867 indicating his classification as an “invalid.” By 1880, he had passed away.
After a significant writing and research hiatus, I’ve decided to rekindle my Civil War studies in as personal a way as one can: I’m trying to piece together the experiences of a distant relative (my great-great-great grandfather) who fought on the side of the Union. The above paragraphs are a simple abstract of what I’ve come to know of him. I started with nothing more than an archaic name: Greenberry Shanks. My mother was given some old military paperwork by an aunt. This paperwork found its way to one of my brothers, who told me about it. He had started researching Greenberry on his own at one point, so I decided to help take up the mission.
The papers my brother possessed turned out to be Union Muster Rolls. Greenberry, at the age of 43, joined the 11th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, Company D, as a private. With that information, I sent a request to the National Archives to send me whatever records they had on hand. I was excited several weeks later to receive a CD in the mail, but disappointed to find that it contained the exact same records that my mother and brother possessed: the muster rolls.
Still, I had my primary documents. Next I wanted to make sure that Greenberry was in fact a relative, and if so, how I was related to him. For this kind of work, genealogy services are fantastic tools. I chose Ancestry.com. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found enough to prove to me that Greenberry is, in fact, my direct relative, and that he is the same man named in the muster rolls. But I’ve reached a point where I’m confident I’ve exhausted primary and secondary sources that are available online, and there’s still so much to learn.
I’m missing two very important documents: a birth certificate and a death certificate. So setting aside the possibility that Greenberry is an immortal and still walks among us (there can only be one!), it seems likely that either these vital records are stuffed in some musty storage somewhere (if I’m lucky), or destroyed. I really hope it’s the former. I’m also missing a proper marriage certificate. I’ve found reference to one that seems like a contender, but I’m not positive. There are actually two leads that indicate his wife was born either the same time as he (circa 1820), or significantly later (1834).
So where do I go from here? I’m going to reach out to the public library system and possibly county historical societies to see if there are records or microfiche available in Kentucky that haven’t been digitized. If I get a reasonably solid lead, I’ll plan a trip to see what turns up. In the meantime, I have some additional research to do on the 11th Kentucky Cavalry in general, and Company D in particular.
Nothing lasts long in this world. Our history books are crammed with names and personalities great and small throughout time. But the number of our ancestors lost to obscurity is exponentially greater. Men like Greenberry shouldered an immensely grave responsibility, leaving the comforts of home to preserve the Union at the risk of life and limb. I feel it an honor to try and revive the memory of his life and sacrifice.
More to follow.
[i] Thomas Speed, R.M. Kelly, and Alfred Pirtle, The Union Regiments of Kentucky, Volume 1 (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1887), 224-229.
[ii] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume XVI (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 668-696