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Children of Civil War vets a disappearing breed

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ In the 1920s, Charles Conrad Becker often would lean back in his chair on the back porch after supper and tell his young son Harold about his exploits as a Union soldier during the Civil War.
/ Source: The Associated Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ In the 1920s, Charles Conrad Becker often would lean back in his chair on the back porch after supper and tell his young son Harold about his exploits as a Union soldier during the Civil War.

He fought in "the Battle Above the Clouds" on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. He was among 60,000 soldiers on Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea. And after the war ended, he had the grim duty of helping to maintain the graves of thousands of Union soldiers who died of starvation and disease at the Confederate prison in Salisbury, N.C.

Last week, Harold Becker, now 86 years old, visited a cemetery near his home here, walking quietly among the gravestones of 2,412 Union veterans. These men, and 3.3 million other soldiers who survived the Civil War, fathered more than 10 million children. Mr. Becker is one of the last of those children still alive. "I feel lonely," he says.

As Memorial Day 2004 approaches, there are 44 known children of Union soldiers and 217 known children of Confederate soldiers still living. The last widow of a Civil War veteran, Alberta Martin, 97, seemed to be near death last week after a heart attack _ an elaborate Confederate funeral was planned in Elba, Ala. _ but she has since rallied. Her survival, and the larger population of Confederate vets' children, is a matter of pride among Confederate heritage groups. "If we couldn't beat 'em, we can outlive 'em," says Beatrice Bielamowicz, 90, echoing the words of her father, Walter Williams, who was celebrated as the last Confederate vet when he died in 1959, at well over age 100.

People like Mr. Becker and Ms. Bielamowicz are the offspring of old vets who married young women between 1890 and 1930. As the number of such children dwindles, Civil War heritage groups are scurrying to record their memories, and to determine how many other actual sons and daughters are out there.

The 36,000-member Sons of Confederate Veterans (now mostly great- or great-great grandsons) has erected billboards and purchased TV and radio commercials seeking descendants. The 22,000-member United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1994 began a seven-year search for literal daughters, and member Mary Schaller collected their stories in a book, "Papa Was a Boy in Gray."

In the North, where many people feel less emotionally connected to the War between the States _ membership in heritage groups is far smaller. The Daughters of Union Veterans has 4,000 members. Sons of Union Veterans has 7,000. Scholars believe there may be 50 additional Union children out there, but these Northern groups have trouble getting the word out that they're seeking them.

Mr. Becker was a lucky find. In 2001, he read a newspaper story about a man who was supposedly the last surviving child of a Civil War vet in Michigan. "No he's not. I'm here, too," said Mr. Becker in a call to Bruce Butgereit of the Sons of Union Veterans.

Mr. Becker, a retired engineer, has stacks of government papers that document his father's years as a soldier. For Mr. Butgereit, 45, the great-great-great-great grand nephew of two Union soldiers, getting to know Mr. Becker has been an honor. "I can shake the hand of a man who held the hand of a man who fought in the Civil War," says Mr. Butgereit.

After the war, Mr. Becker's father became a well-to-do grocer with a wife and four children. "His wife was five feet tall and 200 pounds," says Mr. Becker. In 1898, when Charles Becker was 52, he got sick, but his wife was too obese to care for him. They hired a 21-year-old maid named Barbara Laesser, and the aging veteran fell in love with her. "That maid was my mother," says Mr. Becker.

Charles Becker divorced his wife. For alimony, he gave her assets valued at more than $100,000 _ in excess of $2.2 million in current dollars. In 1900, he married Ms. Laesser and had four more children. Harold was the youngest, born in 1917, when his dad was 71.

Some young women married ancient Civil War vets to collect their pensions of $50 to $100 a month when they died. But Mr. Becker says his parents had a real love affair, and he tells racy stories to prove it.

His dad lived until 1934, and often complained about the Confederacy. "His attitude was, 'Those damn rebels. We should have killed them all,' " recalls Mr. Becker. "He felt they divided the country."

The one experience Charles Becker was uncomfortable talking about was his postwar duty at Salisbury Prison. Confederate guards had buried the emaciated bodies of Union prisoners in hastily dug mass graves. When it rained, bones protruded from the earth. Charles Becker and others in the 128th Indiana Infantry were charged with re-digging gravesites. "Burying all those men, he realized the sacrifices the North made to keep the nation together," says Mr. Becker.

Robert Phipps was a Confederate guard at Salisbury, and the youngest of his 12 children, Effie Whittle, 85, is still alive. She says he rarely spoke about the starving, typhoid-stricken Union prisoners, or about how he and other Confederate guards also were undernourished. After the war, he lugged home a large brass horn that may have belonged to a prisoner. Mrs. Whittle, who still owns that horn, says recent news about prison abuses in Iraq have her thinking about the cruelties her dad saw at Salisbury.

Likewise, Margaret Carver thinks about her grandfather, a Confederate soldier who survived torturous conditions at the Union prison in Elmira, N.Y. Almost 25 percent of Confederate prisoners there died from cold, starvation and disease. Survivors called it "Hell-mira," and the prison's surgeon reportedly bragged that he "killed more Rebels than any Union soldier." Ms. Carver's grandfather insisted that no one ask him about his prison days. "If you did, he'd rant and rave and leave you," says Ms. Carver. "He was treated so badly there. He hated those guards."

Other children of Civil War vets say their dads had memories they couldn't shake. Garland Pool, 76, recalls his father, a Union vet, talking about a battle in which slaves were liberated. One slave asked for a gun, and used it to beat his master to death.

But not all vets' stories focused on the violence. Some spoke of reconciliation _ how a union veterans group in May 1868 helped create "Decoration Day," a time set aside to decorate the graves of Civil War dead. The holiday grew into Memorial Day, honoring casualties in all U.S. wars.

Verna Benge, 88, says that her dad, a Confederate vet, liked to laugh about his walk home to North Carolina after the war. Famished, he came upon a mother and daughter selling meat pies. He bought one, it was delicious, so he bought another one. The daughter started crying and said to her mother, "I want half the money because it was my cat, too!" Ms. Benge's father couldn't bring himself to finish his second pie.

Hank Shouse, 82, says that as he ages, he's more appreciative of how his family history coincides with the nation's history. A World War II vet, he's the son of a Civil War vet who was born in 1844. His grandfather, born in 1800, was conceived in 1799, while George Washington still lived, says Mr. Shouse. "It seems impossible, but I know it's true."

Mr. Shouse is among the children of Civil War vets who visit or e-mail students from two middle schools in Peoria, Ill. "When they tell their stories, it doesn't seem like it all happened 140 years ago," says Becca Epping, 11. The students use the Internet to help the aging "real children" learn more about their fathers' Civil War units.

James F. Brown Sr., 92, says his dad, a Confederate vet, surrendered with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. "He was glad it was all settled. He didn't have harsh words for the North at all," says Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown isn't sure he has ever met any sons of Union soldiers. "But I know they'd be fine," he says. "They're just as good as Confederate men. We're all Americans. If I met one I'd say, 'Hello, friend.' "