Saturday, March 26, 2011

Steve Buscemi and his PA Civil War Ancestor on WDYTYA?

I watched Steve Buscemi trace his family history on the NBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? and found his family story interesting.   The episode focused on Steve's great-great-grandfather, Ralph B. Montgomery, who was a dentist, then grocer, then Civil War soldier, then dentist again in a different town with a different family. 

Ralph B. Montgomery, Steve Buscemi's gggrandfather, was a soldier in the 91st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers that were recruited in Philadelphia.  He is listed as R.B. Montgomery in Bates' Pennsylvania Volunteers of the Civil War which says about him:
Deserted January 11, 1862; returned May 22, 1862; deserted again September 2, 1863
The TV show implied he deserted because of the horrors of the battle of Fredericksburg, but the battle was December 12-15, 1862 and he deserted the first time the previous January - 11 months before the battle happened.  His second desertion was 9 months after Fredericksburg, and there were other battles his regiment fought after Fredericksburg and before his second desertion including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  So, I don't understand the mention of  Fredericksburg on the TV show in connection with his desertion.  But as Steve Buscemi said, "He saw things that no man should see".

Many soldiers in Ralph B. Montgomery's  91st regiment, company F  are listed as having deserted. 

An important fact about Civil War desertion not mentioned during Steve Buscemi's WDYTYA? episode is that not all those listed as Civil War deserters were actually deserters.

According to "Desertion During the Civil War" by Ella Lonn written in 1928,  Pennsylvania had  24,050 men listed as deserting the Union Army.

And it is estimated that at least 25% of the total number of men reported as deserters may have been absent from muster roll for a legitimate reason.  Sometimes these men were in hospitals, or dead, or missing, or prisoners of war, yet listed as deserters because communication and record keeping were very poor at the time.    In addtition, some went home to recover from their wounds and returned to their regiment as soon as they were able.  Sometimes, men were later found serving with a different regiment, yet marked as a deserter with their original regiment. 

That is what happened to Ralph B. Montgomery.  After his second desertion, he returned to the Philadelphia area, where under an assumed name, he enlisted again in the Gettysburg Campaign in the PA Emergency Militia, 20th Cavalry. He served honorably there and was discharged.

Real deserters, or at least those who were caught, in the Pennsylvania Volunteers were dealt with harshly and executed by firing squad as an example to others.

If you find your ancestor is listed as a deserter during the Civil War, don't immediately assume he really deserted.  Look first to see if he returned to his regiment, or joined another regiment, or is listed as a POW, or had been wounded or had died.

Learn more about researching your Civil War ancestor.

3 comments:

abbymullinax said...

Steve Buscemi's ancestor, Ralph, had deserted prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg and the returned after a couple months. He fought in the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and maybe others but then deserted again.

Claudia's Genealogy Blog said...

You are correct. When I found my husbands great grandfather (115th Co I Pittsburgh) he was listed as a deserter but I could not figured out why he was buried in the GAR plot. Then I read he had been wounded and was transferred somewhere to recover. I have the research the place he went to recover.

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