A reflection of the sesquicentennial: Discovery of family grave makes Civil War era personal

Published 4:04 pm Thursday, January 7, 2016

By Savannah Morgan Lane

Miss Virginia 2015

Email newsletter signup

During the 95th annual Miss America program this fall, it occurred to me that I would meet women from around the country. Would these women be dreaming of visiting Virginia? In Atlantic City, contestants rhapsodized about class trips to Williamsburg and Jamestown, to Virginia Beach and Monticello. Virginia’s public relations campaign had clearly done its job. Few visitors, however, would connect 21st-century attractions to the sobering statistic that Virginia hosted more major Civil War battles than any other state. A little over 150 years after the Civil War, it is important to recognize the enormity of those losses and acknowledge the challenges met and those that still face us today.

My father’s office is near the Robert E. Lee Bridge connecting the Richmond of cobblestoned streets with Belle Isle. Belle Isle was explored by Captain John Smith in 1607, used as a colonial racetrack and served as a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers. Heading east is the American Civil War Center at Tredegar Ironworks, which clinched Richmond’s place as the center for oil and coal in the 1860s.

Considering the museum’s proximity to occasional lunches with my father, I spent educational afternoons in the Tredegar Museum. An amateur history buff could navigate a portion of its artifacts as well as that of the American Civil War Center within an hour or two. They would take notice of objects like a Civil War surgeon’s crude medical kit, a musician’s drum that beat a tattoo as soldiers marched toward their destiny and the horror of shackles and other implements of the slave trade.

Serious scholars will find much food for thought at the Historic Tredegar/American Civil War Center. I continue to find myself fascinated by the evidence of people living in a surreal crucible of a time, lingering before exhibits of impossibly small dresses and jewelry made of jet ( a special coal designated for mourning), seemingly indestructible souvenirs of a time when all of America was self-destructing.

My interest in the era took a personal turn in recent years. I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandfather Arthur Major’s hardscrabble life in the coalmines of Pennsylvania. What I had not realized was that my family’s history included the story of one young man who avoided the hardships of coal mining by enlisting during the Civil War.

My great-uncle, W. Anthony “Tony” Major, became intrigued with researching family history. To him, the knowledge of where he came from became as important as where he was headed. With the help of historical societies and national park services, Uncle Tony rediscovered the story John Major, 16 years old in July 1862 when he enrolled in Company K, 129th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. He completed this enlistment in 1863.

In 1864 at the age of 18, John Major again mustered into the service in Company E of the 48th Pennsylvania. There is no record of whether this reenlistment was an action taken out of firm conviction or economic hardship. The 48th Pennsylvania saw action at the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 a few months later. A diary entry revealed a few sparse words establishing the fate of the teen who died in an early morning Petersburg battle on June 17, 1864. John Major was 19, younger than my 20 years today.

Uncle Tony routinely visits Civil War battle sites and became intrigued with paying respects at the grave of John Major. To his disappointment, the grave could not be located, not surprising considering more than 600,000 casualties of the Civil War. Through persistence and personal visits, the grave of Pvt. John Major, originally interred in a cemetery at Meade Station, was located. When that graveyard was closed, his remains were reinterred in City Point Cemetery. Uncle Tony reported that it was a moving experience to pay his respects at last to this long-ago relative located in Grave No. 2368, City Point Cemetery, Hopewell.

Last month I traveled to Hopewell to view the gravesite. In the surreal setting of a cemetery surrounded by 21st century housing, I viewed a headstone marking the dates of a life cut short by war.

As Miss Virginia, I promote the four points of the Miss America system crown: service, scholarship, style and success — with a heavy emphasis on service. The region I represent includes Monticello, Mount Vernon, St. John’s Church, Belle Isle and the American Civil War Center. It includes the former Tredegar Ironworks and its bronze Lincoln statue bearing words that are an entreaty: “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds.” That region also includes the final resting place of a teenager who put himself in the crossfire more than 150 years ago for a country that has not moved far enough from racial divisiveness but continues to hope for healing for the future.  Rest in peace John Major.

SAVANNAH MORGAN LANE is the reigning Miss Virginia 2015 in the Miss America Organization (an organization known for scholarship and service). She is a student at the University of Virginia studying Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in the Arabic language. Her email is missva15@missva.org.