‘He got broke down and bad sick’

George D. Conn

George D. Conn, wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal

You can connect with other folks like crazy on Facebook and Twitter, but there’s nothing like a family picnic.

Back in July, my wife, Mary, and I went with my mom to the annual Pierce/Cunningham get-together in Honey Brook, Pa. I’m a Venditta, so where do the Pierces and Cunninghams come in?

My mom’s mom, Clara, was a Pierce. Two of Clara’s older sisters married Cunningham brothers. (I’ve written about one of them on this blogsite: George F. Cunningham, who served with Company B, 14th Engineers in France during World War I.)

At one of these Sunday picnics years ago, Susie Cunningham put me on to a genealogy computer program called Personal Ancestral File. A dabbler, I still use Version 5.2 to record historical information on both sides of my family.

Susie and I are related through her husband, Glenn, a retired Marine colonel. Glenn’s dad was a first cousin of my mom’s.

During the July picnic, I met Susie and Glenn’s daughter Molly Reid, who is just as much of a genealogy enthusiast as her mom, if not more so. Incredibly, she’s going all the way back to the Middle Ages for family info. She has a how-to website for family historians, http://www.finddeeperroots.com.

I told Molly I’d done some research on one of our ancestors, George D. Conn, a Civil War veteran. George was my grandmother Clara’s maternal grandfather. I knew a little about him from research I did on his 175th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers at the Army Military History Institute library in Carlisle, Pa. But I didn’t have his pension records.

“Oh, I have those,” Molly said as if it were no big deal.

It turns out she’d made copies during a trip to the National Archives from her home outside Washington, D.C., at the end of 2012. Within a few weeks of the picnic, she mailed me a DVD with George’s pension file, which is 72 pages, along with his service record, which she knew I already had, but not on a disc.

George, who was from Oxford, Chester County, joined Company E of the 175th Regiment in the fall of 1862, at age 25. He was honorably discharged when his nine-month term of service expired in August 1863. He had never been wounded during his regiment’s tour of duty in North Carolina.

But what I didn’t know was what the war did to him, how it affected him after he came home. Thanks to Molly, I can tell that story.

In 1891, more than a quarter century after the war ended, George applied for pension benefits because of a diseased left eye. As part of the process, the federal government wanted to see sworn statements about what happened to him and about his current condition.

In his own statement, he said that at 53 he was “almost totally disabled.” Under “occupation,” he wrote “carpenter when able.”

While serving at Hill’s Point near Little Washington, N.C., on or about the last day of June 1863, George “incurred affection of left eye” and broke down from heavy marching and fording streams in rain, mud and storm, he said. He also grew deaf from cannonading at Fort Hill, N.C., in the early days of April 1863. He was treated at Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., from about July 7-16, 1863.

Four of his comrades from Company E stood up for him with sworn statements of their own, in what were called a Comrade’s Certificate of Disability signed by a notary public. Among them, nothing drove home the sacrifice of a soldier more than the handwritten statement from Jacob Miller of Oxford. It’s dated Feb. 17, 1891. Here it is, in part:

“George D. Conn while in the service and line of duty on board boat for five days before Fort Hill, N.C., during heavy cannonading incurred partial deafness about April 5, 1863. [T]hen again in the service and in line of duty at or near Hill’s Point a few miles from Little Washington, N.C., [he] incurred diseased eye and rheumatism and got broke down and bad sick about last of June 1863, [as a] result of fatigue and exposure. I saw him bathing [his] eye when it was terribly red and inflamed. [H]e was troubled with aches and pains.”

George was approved for a pension – $4 a month at first. It gradually increased over the years until he was getting $32 a month in 1918.

He was deaf and blind in the one eye when he died in 1923 at age 85.

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