27 May 2012

We Are Not a Military Family

Many moons ago, my Grandmother Elsie started a family tradition. Each year, we would all gather at Uncle Boone’s house on Memorial Day for a potluck and visit to the local cemetery. My paternal side is well represented in that cemetery, and she felt it was incredibly important to remember those people. I agree. We would all bring flowers, clean up the headstones, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of that place. This is where my love of cemeteries first developed.

My favorite spot here is a small section, downhill from the main part of the property. If you sneak down this hill, you are right on the edge of the beautiful Pacific Northwest forest, and there is an older tree next to a row of Brown’s. It’s a fantastic little spot, and I couldn’t think of a better place for those relatives of mine to rest.

Even though Grandma has been gone some time, the tradition lives on. I now live four states away, and unfortunately cannot participate each year as I once did. But, my family and I carry on, visiting our local cemetery, leaving flowers for the veterans and cleaning their headstones. It’s still an incredibly important day on the calendar.

When I started my genealogical journey over a decade ago, I would have told you, “We are not a military family.” Yes, my father was in the Navy, and my brother in the Army Reserves. Yes, I have a handful of cousins that were, or are, active duty in one way or another. But we really aren’t a military family.

I realized pretty quickly how wrong I was.

Capt. Oscar F. Brown
Private holdings of author.
My great-great grandfather, Capt. Oscar F. Brown, served in two units during the Civil War, most notably, the Mississippi Marine Brigade, which served on board ramming vessels patrolling the Mississippi River. They would try to outrun, blockade and preferably sink Confederate ships by crashing into them. The Marine unit, of which my ancestor was a member, would most often disembark onto the banks prior to the engagement, then travel by foot to the action and shoot from shore. They did, upon occasion, stay on the boat and fight from the water. They were a unique unit in many ways, and quite obscure among Civil War researchers. They were also one of the only units during the war to act under federal jurisdiction, rather than a state.

After his discharge, Oscar homesteaded in Nebraska, where he married and raised his family. He died there, but after his death, his wife, Frances, followed her children to Washington State. She is buried in the Orting Soldiers Home Cemetery as a veteran’s widow.  Of their six descendants, only one, Warren, the youngest, served in the Armed Forces. Like his father, he was on boats, but during World War I, he enlisted in the Navy. We know he was a Machinist, and he probably served on submarines, based on our photo archives. Surviving the war, he lived out his later years in Oregon and California, and died in 1945. He is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery, and I hope that one of these years I can get there for Memorial Day.  

2nd Lt. Robert L Brown
Private holdings of author.
The next generation brought a new war, of course. My grandfather wanted to enlist very much, but was turned away from the Army. His brothers, however, both joined, one in the Merchant Marines and one in the Army Air Force. My father’s uncles carried on this unknown tradition. 

Maybe it was known to them?

Author's father, as a young sailor.
Private holdings of author.
Then my father. He served 18 years for the United States Navy during the Vietnam period. In the Navy, he learned his lifelong craft of photography, met my mother, and had their first three children. I am the last and the only one who cannot claim to be a “Navy baby.”  His service stories I can recite to you verbatim, we’ve heard them so many times over our lifetime, but I still never thought of myself as a veteran’s daughter growing up.

Author's brother, US Army.
Private holdings of author.
My brother enlisted in the Army Reserves the summer before I entered the sixth grade.  When he left, I was shocked and saddened; I just did not understand that he wasn't going to be a part of my day to day life anymore. I still have the letters he sent home from boot camp and that first year of training. During the first engagement in Kuwait in the early 90’s, I was petrified he was going to be called to Active Duty, and he came very close from what I was told. I also had one paternal cousin that enlisted, and still have a couple on my maternal side that are serving.

We know with certainty that we have five generations of military service in my father’s line.  There are four theories as to who Oscar’s Dad was, and that is my biggest brick wall at this time. Two of those possible men were also veteran’s, both having served in the War of 1812. If one of those turns out to be his father, then we really have six generations. If my great-great-great grandfather turns out to be the man I think he is, than our family goes back to the Revolutionary War. I'm sure we're not the only people in this country that can say we've served in nearly every major conflict fought by American forces since the Civil War. We are lucky enough, however, to have not lost anyone to these engagements. So, on this Memorial Day, I will take time to remember, and I hope you will too. I will continue my grandmother's tradition, I will ensure that my three year old daughter lays flowers on the grave of a veteran. 

I am proud to say, we are a military family.

The headstone for Frances E. (Lawrence)
Brown, widow of Civil War veteran Oscar
F. Brown. Buried in the Orting Soldiers Home
Cemetery, Orting, Washington.
Photo: Private holdings of author.