James W Hoard: Two Armies, Two Wives

Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, but you shouldn't go into it with any exalted expectations. Usually, the things you find out are pretty ordinary, just like the people who did them. Sometimes, though, you hit the jackpot. And sometimes you find out things that no one ever expected (or wanted) you to know. I started doing family research around 1970, and one of my early projects was to find out about all my great-grandfathers who had fought in the Civil War. I already knew from my maternal grandfather that his father had initially enlisted in one army but finished the war in another. The family story was that James enlisted in the Confederate army at the beginning of the war; was captured in a battle, and sent to a Yankee prison camp in Maryland. He decided he didn't want to spend the rest of the war "in that kind of place" and agreed to exchange his coat of Confederate gray for one of Union blue. He was sent west to the frontier "to fight Indians" and was mustered out when the war was over. Shortly after that he married Emily Scott, my great-grandmother, and spent the rest of his life farming small rental pieces of other people's land while fathering ten children. He died in 1911, mourned by his family and community as a gentle, kindly man.

These were ordinary people whose lives had been tweaked out of ordinary paths by the chaotic times in which they lived. So when I asked to see his pension files at the National Archives, I knew there would probably be some interesting sidelights. I made my request and went downtown a few days later to the Archives for my appointment with great-grandfather James. As I sat there turning pages, my jaw dropped lower and my eyes got wider with every document. My great-grandfather, the white-bearded man in the portrait, with the gentle eyes and kindly smile, was a bigamist! That three-inch stack of paper contained verbatim affidavits from James, both his wives, his first wife's second husband, his army friends, and the government investigator who had unearthed the whole amazing story. At first I was shocked, then a little amused. So—James hadn't been such a saint after all! That twinkle in his eye as he stood beside firm-jawed, no-nonsense Emily was concealing a secret that would have astonished and horrified them all. After piecing the official record together with family stories and a bit of speculation, I'm pretty sure that James wasn't a villain or a schemer—he probably wasn't even very bright. He was just a man who spent his life muddling through, mostly directed by events and personalities far stronger than he was.

He was born in Georgia about 1839, but the family moved early in his life to Alabama. He never learned to read or write, and he was never even sure what year he was born. He always said his parents died when he was very young; most of his childhood memories seemed to have been of a sharp-tongued, heavy-handed Irish stepmother. By the time of the 1860 census, he and his brothers were living in various households in Coosa County, Alabama, working as farm laborers. On 13 June 1861, he married a girl named Mary Catherine Logan, whose uncle was enlisting men for a company in the 13th Alabama Infantry. Their few weeks of married life probably wouldn't have made much of an impression on either of them, except for the son that was born when James was away at the front. He asked her to name the baby William, after his brother, but as far as we know, he never saw him.

According to his U.S. Army record, he was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse on 12 May 1864 and sent to the federal prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, on 17 May. The conditions were wretched, and as he later told his children, he didn't want to spend the rest of the war there. When he was offered the opportunity, he joined the Union army and was sent west, away from the front, to drive mule teams in Kansas and Dakota Territory. He later said that he was afraid to go back to Alabama or Georgia, knowing he would be labeled a turncoat and traitor. Mary Catherine believed him dead (she was known as the Widow Hoard), and she would remarry in 1873. On 12 July 1866 he married my great grandmother, Emily Scott, in Platte City, Missouri, stating that he was single. Emily is my Sackett connection—her mother was Aner Jane Sackett.

It may have been Emily who urged him to try for disability benefits. His first application was turned down because he had served the Confederacy before joining the Union army. Unbeknownst to him, a claim a few years later from Mary Catherine for a minor's pension for her son William Hoard was also rejected, on the grounds that James had not died while in the service, but her application went into the file along with his. As the years went by, the government became a little more forgiving, and James tried again. This time, the Washington clerks noticed that two different kinds of benefits were being requested for the same man. One applicant was claiming he was dead, while the same (presumably dead) man was claiming that he was disabled.

At this point, Washington sent a man to investigate. He tracked James down in his own cornfield and confronted him with his past. At first he tried to deny it all, but finally he admitted that he had had a wife and child in Alabama and that he had never returned to them. The investigator, who had gotten the information he needed, agreed not to tell his family. James was granted his disability pension, and continued his life as a farmer. He was known as Father Hoard, a kind and gentle man who could always be counted on to bring his homemade fiddle to every party in the neighborhood. He died in 1911, mourned by his family and neighbors.

Emily, meanwhile, was about to receive the shock of her life. He had always told her that when he was gone, she would be eligible to receive a government pension as his widow. But when she made her application, the pension office had to inform her that there was an earlier, conflicting claim from another woman who said she also was, or had been, Mrs. James Wesley Hoard. The ensuing investigation dragged on for many months and must have been painful for all concerned.

I remember great-grandmother Emily very well—she died when I was 10 and she was a few months short of her 100th birthday. When I picture her, the word that comes to mind is indomitable. At first, she accused the government of making it all up so as to do her out of her rights, and her angry words fairly leap from the faded, hand-written transcriptions. The evidence, however, was pretty hard to refute, and she finally had to accept that it was all true.

The government must have been somewhat sympathetic to her predicament, because they went through some very contorted legal backflips to make it possible to call her the legal widow. Mary Catherine Logan Hoard had remarried in the 1870s, and both she and her husband were still living (and married) in 1911. They were both interviewed, and she swore that neither she (nor her son William) would ever make any claims on the government in connection with her marriage to James. Some of the relevant county courthouses had burned during or since the war, so the legal assumption was that no one could prove (or disprove) that there had (or had not) been a divorce. Their next leap of logic was to declare that both James's and Mary Catherine's second marriages had lasted long enough to be classified as common law marriages. On the basis of all these somewhat precarious positions, they were prepared to decree that Emily was James's sole legal widow and thus entitled to his survivor's pension, which was her only income for the rest of her life.

She lived with the secret for another 37 years. Apparently, the only members of her family who knew about it were her oldest daughter and son-in-law; they accompanied her on her repeated trips to the lawyer's office. Their names appear with hers on the affidavits, and apparently they never told another soul. James himself had told his children about serving in two armies, and my grandfather had told that part of the tale to us. My grandfather died only a year or so before my visit to the Archives, so we couldn't ask him about the new information, but the story of the previous marriage came as a complete surprise to my mother and my aunt—neither of them had ever heard so much as a whisper.

In a way, it's kind of a sad little story, and I suspect it may, in some ways, represent the lives of many of that generation. If the placid-looking, backwater life of my great-grandparents could contain so much drama, it makes me wonder what kind of stories are concealed in other families—stories that didn't happen to get investigated and recorded and so are lost forever. Documented history, whether of individuals, families, or nations, probably would look like the merest tip of a vast iceberg, if we had some way to know all the stories that have been left untold.