When my friend Keith Jackowski told me he had an ancestor who had fought in the Civil War, I was intrigued. And jealous.
Because even as there are about 100 million Americans living today who can trace their ancestry to Civil War soldiers (according to the Civil War Preservation Trust), I am not one of them.
But I am fascinated by the Civil War -- and have been ever since I was a child re-enacting the Battle of Gettysburg with blue and gray plastic soldiers. So when Keith said he had a connection to those times through flesh and blood, I wanted to know more.
Keith, 49, who grew up in Bellmore and now lives in Farmingdale, knew little about the ancestor who fought to preserve the Union -- not even his full name -- but he did have a tangible connection: a double-barreled shotgun that had been handed down through the generations. That, and a photograph of a white-bearded veteran holding the gun.
I volunteered to help Keith and his family find out a little more -- and in the process I figured I would adopt old Grandpa King of East Hampton as the Civil War ancestor I never had.
Where does one start the search for a Civil War soldier's history? Well, a name helps -- but the surname King was all we had. Keith's mom, Edris ("Edie"), had an idea of how to track it down. It didn't hurt that her maiden name was King.
Edie, a retired clerk from the Garden City Public Library who now lives outside Wilmington, N.C., sent me a copy of Jeanette Edwards Rattray's 1953 book, "East Hampton History and Genealogy." The impressively researched volume included the family trees of every major East Hampton family.
The Kings were one of the great clans of Long Island's East End. Over time, those families became known as "Bonackers" -- short for Accabonac Harbor, situated in the East Hampton hamlet called The Springs, where many of them settled in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
"This will be easy now," I thought when I opened the book -- until I turned to the K's and found not one entry but instead a 14-page chapter on the Kings, who arrived on Long Island in the mid-1600s.
Members of the King family provided the muscle that helped build East Hampton over the next three centuries. They were whalers, farmers, laborers, groundskeepers -- and soldiers. After hours of reading, and with helpful notes from Edie, I was able to determine the name we were looking for -- William Patty King.
In an online article by Civil War historian Harrison Hunt, we learned that most of the men from the East End had belonged to the same regiment: the 127th New York, nicknamed "The Monitors."
The regiment spent much of the war in South Carolina and was involved in sporadic fighting around Charleston, including efforts to take the Confederate Fort Wagner, which guarded the city. (One of those assaults was led by the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment and inspired the film "Glory.")
Armed with that information, we were able to locate William Patty King's service records, through the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
When the thick manila envelope arrived in the mail, Keith and I inspected the contents, and what we found was poignant but also perplexing -- Pvt. William Patty King had died Sept. 23, 1864, of typhoid fever, in a military hospital outside Charleston.
He was 5-foot-1 and had hazel eyes and a "florid" complexion. He had listed his occupation as "farmer" and was only 18 years old. Part of the records included a terse list of his effects when he died -- one blanket, one cap, one coat, one flannel shirt, one pair of drawers.
"That's all he had in the world," said Keith. "And he was just a kid."
He was also not the man we were looking for.
Through a roster of the 127th New York, posted on the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center website, I learned that there were no less than nine Kings in the regiment - most from the East End branch of the family. Further research narrowed our search to one name: Wilson B. King.
Pvt. Wilson B. -- William Patty's uncle -- joined the Union Army in August 1862, in the heat of the patriotic fever that swept Long Island in the early part of the Civil War.
King signed up at a recruiting drive in Sag Harbor, one of many held that month from Riverhead to Huntington. "Old Suffolk Aroused!" cried the headline in the Sag Harbor Corrector (which I was able to read online, through the Suffolk County Libraries website).
The newspaper listed the names of 24 local men, including Wilson, then about 23 years old, who had stepped forward that week for God, country -- and a $100 recruiting bonus.
I learned more about these recruitment drives -- part campaign rally, part religious revival meeting, part carnival -- in "Sea to Sea," Averill Dayton Geus' 1999 history of East Hampton.
But the book included something even more valuable: a 1915 photograph showing East Hampton's last seven surviving Civil War veterans at the town's July Fourth parade. Among them was white-bearded Wilson B., whom I recognized instantly from the shotgun photo.
Imagine: A man who grew up in the rural, fire-lit world of antebellum East Hampton had lived to see the advent of telephones, automobiles and airplanes.
The grave search
Our search reached its climax last month, when Keith and I drove to East Hampton to locate the graves of those two Civil War ancestors: Wilson B. King (who was, we had now determined, Keith's great-great-grandfather) and William P. King -- yes, William Patty -- who would be Keith's first cousin three times removed, according to a genealogist we consulted, Nancy Coleman of Port Washington.
Both Kings had served in Company K of the 127th. But only Wilson returned home. I learned in the regimental history that he had been wounded at a battle outside Charleston in December 1864, barely three months after his nephew's death.
We were joined by local historian Hugh King, director of the Home Sweet Home Museum in East Hampton and a distant cousin of Keith's (although they had never met).
Hugh had grown up in The Springs and knew where the bodies were buried -- literally. He said that Civil War veterans were interred in three local cemeteries scattered about the community.
We decided to visit all three. A 10-minute drive from East Hampton village up winding, wooded back roads brought us to Green River Cemetery. Jackson Pollock is buried there, but as we discovered after a half hour of searching, Wilson B. King is not.
The second cemetery was adjacent to Springs Presbyterian Church, just across the road from Ashwagh Hall, a popular performance space. A nearby memorial to local veterans included the names of both Wilson B. King and William P. King, but Wilson was not to be found among the cluster of headstones.
"We have one more place to try," said Hugh. "But it's a long shot." Indeed, Oak Grove cemetery seemed an unlikely place for a Civil War grave, as most of the headstones and memorials were recent. The three of us split up to search.
It was a hot day, and I was getting tired of looking. "Where are you, you old pain in the neck?" I muttered after another 20 minutes. At that moment, I turned to my left and spotted a modest marker with the simple inscription:
Wilson B. King, Co. K, 127th NY
Died: June 20, 1921
"I found him!"
Keith and Hugh thought I was kidding until they saw the stone for themselves. "Wow!" said Hugh. "That was a real long shot!"
Keith said nothing. He put his hand on the stone, gathered himself, then took out his cell phone and called North Carolina: "We found him, Mom."
That's where Gina Piastuck, head of the East Hampton Library's Long Island Collection, had located William Patty King. What old registry of graves, what rare volume had she gleaned this information from? "I just looked his name up on Find-a-Grave.com," she said with a laugh.
With 579 interments dating from the 1700s, Amagansett Cemetery is larger and older than Oak Grove. After a half hour we had not found William Patty King and decided that his must have been one of the weather-beaten headstones whose inscriptions were no longer legible. I was ready to call it a day, but Keith wanted to continue. And less than a minute later, he noticed a stone with an American flag planted next to it. "William Patty King," he said, reading the inscription. "It's him!"
It turns out that brothers Henry and Tom Lester, members of the East Hampton American Legion Post, had planted flags on veterans' graves the week before Memorial Day. "We do it every year," Henry said.
"We should have just asked them where these guys are buried," Keith said with a laugh. "It would have saved us a lot of time."
But it was an investment of time that led to not one Civil War ancestor, but two, whom we managed to rescue from obscurity. And although they're not really mine, I think I'll adopt both of them.