Random Thoughts of a Disordered Mind


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Poppa & Sade: William Jesse Keel & Sarah Annis Peal

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Sarah & Bill Keel, 1942, on their 50th wedding anniversary

My dad grew up living with his mother’s parents in rural Martin County, North Carolina. He called them Poppa and Sade.

Poppa was William Jesse “Bill” Keel, born 22 August 1872 in Bear Grass, Martin County, to James L. Keel and Elizabeth (Betsy) Bowen, the second of their ten children. Bill was raised and worked on his father’s farm with his brothers and had a fifth grade education.  He was a strong man who loved to hunt and fish as well as farm, and had a big laugh.

Sade was Sarah Annis Peal, born 7 September 1874 in Cross Roads Township, a small community next to Bear Grass. She was the second of seven daughters born to William Ashley Peal and Jane Elizabeth Stalls and was named for her paternal grandmother, Annis Gurganus.  Sarah was a farmer’s daughter who was well educated for the time, going to high school for three years. She was a tiny woman with fine bones and a sweet smile.

Sarah Peal and Bill Keel married on 6 January 1892 in Cross Roads, probably at her home; she was 19 and he was 21. Their families knew each other; both of their fathers were general farmers in the county and both attended the Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church, which Sarah and Bill attended for many years after their marriage.

They had eleven children but only four survived infancy: Mary Magdalene (Maglene), Susie Lanier, Edgar Durand, and Rachel Aldine. The first ten babies were born between 1895 (James Willie) and 1912 (Sarah Naomi). Daughter Rachel, born in 1921, was a “bonus” baby and only seven years older than my father, who was her nephew. The babies who didn’t survive were buried in a private family plot behind the “old home place” farm. Their graves now are covered by leaves and their names mostly forgotten. But Sarah recorded them in the family Bible so we have them:

Keel-Family-Record-From-Bib

When their daughter Susie Lanier Keel (my grandmother) married in July 1927, what she remembered most about her wedding was that her parents didn’t attend. Since she was probably pregnant at the time, it is possible that they disapproved of either the marriage or her husband. The newly-wed Myers were living on the Keel farm seven months later when their first child (my father) was born. Both generations lived together in the same house for the next twenty five years, first with Bill Keel as head of household and later, Bill Myers as head with his in-laws in the home. Poppa Keel farmed and did road construction work until they moved to Williamston in 1925.

SCAN0022My dad remembered that his grandmother did almost all the cooking for the combined household while his mother worked as a seamstress to bring in extra money. Poppa Bill Keel took Daddy fishing and also hunted to provide more food for the family; their farm cousins kept them well supplied with produce but protein was expensive. Bill Keel was the man in charge of barbeque whenever a hog was butchered; those were always social occasions with many family and friends to share the food and the occasion. They were poor and lived simply.

Sarah Keel died at home in Williamston on 28 June 1948. She was 73 years old. Her beloved husband Bill Keel died almost exactly four years later on 26 June 1952. He was seventy nine years old and had been in ill health for five years. They are buried together in Williamston’s Woodlawn Cemetery next to their daughter Susie Keel Myers.

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52 Ancestors #21 – James L. Keel, Galvanized Yankee

Most of the Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg were taken to Fort Delaware; my great-great-grandfather Private James L. Keel was one of them. We call him Grandpappy Jim.

KEEL James L - Captured at Gettysburg - July 1863Keel was born in Martin County, North Carolina on 18 March 1846 and was 15 years old when he enlisted in Company H, North Carolina 1st Regiment on 24 June 1861 in Williamston, North Carolina. He made extra money working as a teamster and was paid bimonthly from 1861 through April 1863.

The 1st North Carolina served everywhere during those years, fighting with the Army of Northern Virginia in Mechanicsville, Sharpsburg, and Chancellorsville, and marched with General Robert E. Lee to Gettysburg in July 1863, where Keel was captured. He was marched with 11,000 other prisoners to Fort Delaware, a Union fortress on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. Within 10 days, he swore the Oath of Allegiance to the Union and became a prison guard in Ahl’s Independent Battery as an alternative to being a prisoner of war in an overcrowded, disease-ridden prison.

Seven companies of “Galvanized Yankees” were recruited from the prison pen at Fort Delaware in the summer of 1863. They got their name from the color of galvanized steel, which is gray steel coated by blue-tinted zinc, much like a rebel soldier wearing a blue Union uniform.

 

Jim Keel was 18 years old and described as having a light complexion, light hair, grey eyes and standing 6 feet and ½ inch tall.   At some point between August 1863 and March 1864, he married a local Delaware City girl and was granted a short leave of absence at the end of March 1864 to visit Philadelphia with his wife. Due back at Fort Delaware on 4 April 1864, he failed to report and was listed as a deserter on 1 May 1864.  His wife, which the North Carolina family did not know he had, said he was drunk when she put him on board the ferry to return to duty.

He was apprehended on 16 June 1864 on board the oyster schooner  Rainbow in Chesapeake Bay at or near Delaware City and was tried for desertion by a General Court-Martial convened at Fort Delaware on 12 July 1864.  Keel was sentenced to forfeit all pay and allowances from 8 April 1864 and to serve the unexpired term of his enlistment at hard labor at the Dry Tortugas, Florida. While a harsh sentence, he could have been sentenced to death.

Keel Court Martial Sentence

Except he didn’t.  Instead, he returned to company duty with all pay and allowances due from the date of his desertion, as directed by “Special Order No. 324 dated September 7, 1864, Headquarters, Fort Delaware.”  He went back to being a prison guard and mustered out with Ahl’s Battery at Wilmington, Delaware on 25 July 1865 receiving all due pay and allowances.

So what on earth happened?  Why was this deserter (or traitor, if you looked at him from the perspective of his former Confederate comrades in arms) suddenly returned to duty with rank and back pay? Who was this mysterious “wife” that we knew nothing about and what happened to her? So many questions and no one had answers!

After wondering for 40 years, we now have his court martial file from the National Archive. While it doesn’t really explain the wife at all, we know that Keel pleaded “Not Guilty” to desertion but did not present any evidence in his own defense. But there was a bigger legal issue going on than whether he was a deserter: in the opinion of Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General of the Union Army, Fort Delaware’s commander Gen. Shoepf did not have the authority to call a general court martial, so the sentence was overturned.

Keel’s file includes a 4-page letter from Joseph Holt to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, laying out his argument that the prison did not constitute a Brigade and therefore was not legally able to convene a general court martial. It bounced around to other officers for their review and input, ultimately leading Stanton to agree with Holt’s original opinion. This decision was telegraphed to Gen. Shoepf at Fort Delaware

Telegram From Sec of War

And just like that, Keel was released back to his service.

Revocation of Keel Court Martial

James Keel disappeared for a few years after the war ended. I wouldn’t have wanted to return to North Carolina, either, after changing sides – but he was not the only one in his county. He may have been with this first family during these years, though to date I have found no record of a marriage in the Delaware City area. But at least the mystery of why he was not sent to Dry Tortugas, Florida, has been solved – and was the subject of a legal decision to boot.


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52 Ancestors – #19 Grandmother Susie Keel Myers

Everyone in town called her “Miss Susie.” I called her Grandmama.

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Susie Keel Myers, c1940 – Norfolk, VA

Susie Lanier Keel was born 31 August 1906 in the rural community of Everetts in Martin County, North Carolina. She was named for her aunt Susie (Sudie) Peal Lanier and her middle name became a family tradition, passed down to daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter.  Susie was the seventh child born to farmer William Jesse Keel and his wife, Sarah Annis Peal. Of their eleven children, only four survived infancy, and she and her older sister Mary Magdalene (Maglene) Keel were particularly close.

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Susie and Maglene Keel, c1909 – Martin County, NC 

SCAN0013 (2)She wanted to be a teacher when she grew up and history was her favorite subject in school, she told my father.  According to the 1940 census, Susie completed four years of high school, two years more than her husband, William Marvin Myers. They met in Robersonville, NC, at the movies and something sparked between the social farmer’s daughter and the quiet man from Hertford. They were married at the Baptist preacher’s home in Williamston on 23 July 1926.  Grandmama told me that what she remembered most about her wedding was that her parents didn’t come. I believe that was because she was pregnant; her first child (my dad) was born seven months later.

Bill and SusieSusie spent her life in Martin County, raising sons William and James and daughter Jeanette, and burying a fourth child (Joseph) who died at seven months. When first married, she and her little family lived with her parents, Bill and Sarah (Sade) Keel. By the 1940 census, though, the head of the household was her husband, not her father. Both parents continued to live with her until their deaths in 1948 and 1952.  This was not unusual for the generation or the community.

But money was tight.  Bill Myers worked for the local tobacco company and Bill Keel hunted and fished, providing food. Susie also worked most of her life, sitting in the window of the local dry cleaners doing sewing alterations. She also brought work home, doing piecework for a local dressmaker.  Once when I was feeling guilty about hiring someone to alter my own clothes, I realized that she made a living because people hired her, and that she would probably approve of my helping someone else survive.

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Susie Myers at Alpha Cleaners, Williamston – c1980

Grandmama not only raised her own children, she also raised two of her grandchildren after her daughter remarried in 1960. She and my grandfather opened their home to a new generation, as they had opened it to an older one years before. I was jealous of them because they spent so much time with her and I only saw her about once a year; trips from New Jersey to North Carolina didn’t come easy.

Susie Keel Myers loved her God, her family, and her friends. She cooked wonderful Southern meals and drank gallons of sweet tea on the porch, visiting with friends and family. She grew up in the Primative Baptist Church but spent her adult years as a member of the Williamston Presbyterian Church. She loved to sing, especially hymns, and was a good and supportive friend, respected and loved by her family and community.

MYERS Susie, William, Tom, Bill and Rob - 1985 - Emerald Bay

William Myers, Tom Myers, Bill Myers, Susie Myers, Rob Myers – Emerald Bay, TX – 1985

Grandmama died on 10 December 1987 at age eighty one and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Williamston next to her husband and sons and close to her parents. My life is richer for having had her in it.


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52 Ancestor #3 – Longevity of a Search

Longevity can be defined as “long life” or “long existance or service,” which covers a few more options. While I have some long-lived relatives (Great Aunt Mary Magdalene, who was 98 when she died, or Great-Great-Grandmother Margaret Brookmire Morrison Segar, who died at 93), I’m taking this in a different direction: the length of time I’ve been searching for the parents of Grandpappy Jim.

Sometimes a search can yield results in a matter of minutes. You pop into a database, put a name into a search box, and filter resultsJamesLKeel by location and time frame, and Voila! A marriage record from 1906 for your great-grandparents, found online in Ancestry or FamilySearch or FindMyPast. And you’re ready for the next question.

But sometimes those searches take a long, long time. I’ve been looking for my great-great-grandfather’s parents for over 40 years. Sometimes I think he popped out of the earth or was dropped by aliens.

My paternal grandmother got me started with enough basic information that I could find the Keel family, her family, in the microfilmed census records, but they weren’t accessible anywhere near me so it took time to figure out what I could and couldn’t confirm. I lived in another state and traveled to North Carolina to look at courthouse and land records, but many were lost in courthouse fires in 1862 and 1884. Plus the state of North Carolina was thoughtless enough to not require state-wide birth and death records until 1913 and James Keel died in 1908. Rats.

Before computers, there was only so much I could do from a distance. Research trips were spread out – and once I moved to New England, they didn’t happen. I got copies of his military records in 1975 which were a treasure trove of other information – the man was captured at Gettysburg and went to a prison camp at Ft. Delaware, where he changed sides and became a prison guard. He went AWOL and was later captured and court-martialed, but then was returned to copmlete the rest of his service before he disappeared for 6 years. I would have disappeared, too, if I’d done that.

With so much online now, I can search many records from my home, but tax, land, estate records, and existing probate have been silent regarding Grandpappy Jim’s parents.  I’ve connected with cousins also working on the line and no one has been successful finding resources. We found the graves of Jim and his wife Betsy and have photos of their tombstones, but his parents are not buried in the same cemetery.

There have been false steps along the way and long periods of doing nothing while I worked on other lines; picking this one back up again over time meant repeating research because I wasn’t very meticulous in recording the steps I’d already taken. My research strategy has been far from strategic and it’s dragged on for a very, very long time. It’s time to sit down and actually come up with an actual research plan.