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Split by Civil War, a family’s letters reflect that historic time

Split by Civil War, a family’s letters reflect that historic time

Local historian Paul Schneider can’t be sure just how Sarah McGuire’s family felt about George Shiel

Paul Schneider can’t be sure just how Sarah McGuire’s family felt about George Shields.

Not only did the Scot immigrant marry their daughter Sarah and take her away from Waterford down to Columbia, S.C., he also manufactured ammunition for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Local historian Paul Schneider will talk about George and Sarah, and Sarah’s correspondence with her family in the North in “Divided by War: The Confederate Flag That Almost Flew Over Waterford in 1861,” a presentation sponsored by the Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center. Schneider’s talk will be held Tuesday at McGreivey’s in Waterford.

“What we have is the correspondence from Sarah and her two children, William and Charlotte, to her sisters and their cousins and aunts,” said Schneider. “We have no way of knowing how many letters didn’t survive, but we do have indications that there were other letters. They were also planning to visit before the war started. There’s a letter written in April of 1861 from one little boy in Columbia to his cousin, another little boy in Waterford, saying how he had a brand new Confederate flag.”

‘Divided by War: The Confederate Flag That Almost Flew Over Waterford in 1861’

WHAT: A history talk by Paul Schneider, sponsored by the Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center

WHERE: McGreivey’s, 91 Broad St., Waterford

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday

HOW MUCH: Suggested donation of $6

MORE INFO: 238-0809, www.waterfordmuseum.com

“I have a Southern Confederacy flag which consists of white and red stripes with a blue square in the corner with seven stars in a circle on it,” wrote 11-year-old William to his cousin in Waterford. “Ma says I must not soil it but must bring it with me when I come north and hoist it on your barn.”

The letters are from the Eddy family collection that were donated to the Waterford Historical Museum by brothers Paul and William Grattan, physicians from Waterford. Paul died in 2009 and William still practices part-time in Cohoes.

“It’s a pretty complicated story, but they got the collection from Dr. Harold Peckham, who was the last descendant of one branch of the Eddy family, and he had no heirs,” explained Schneider. “It’s amazing how much stuff is in this collection. The letters are just a part of it, and it’s all material that Paul Grattan began donating to the Waterford Museum in 2004.”

Personal project

Schneider began looking into the contents of the Eddy Collection when he retired from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation at Peebles Island.

“When I got done working for the state bureau of historic sites, I decided I really wanted to get back into what I originally had always loved to do, and that was historic research,” said Schneider. “Around that same time, I started volunteering at the Waterford Museum, and began looking into what Dr. Grattan, who had been one of the founders of the museum, had donated.”

What he found was a large collection of various items that, while holding his interest, were not organized in any kind of reasonable fashion.

“I almost immediately knew the collection was special,” said Schneider. “We took it and rehoused it in acid-free, archival folders, but sometimes you’d be looking at one box and you’d find something from 1830, and then the next thing you see from the same box is something from 1975. Paul was a collector and interested in all kinds of things.”

When Schneider began looking into Shields’ history, he found quite an enterprising young man.

“He settled originally in the Albany area around 1848, and I believe he enlisted in the U.S. Army in order to work at the arsenal in Watervliet,” said Schneider. “He met Sarah and they were married. At some point, he was approached by a William Glaze who was proprietor of the Palmetto Armory in South Carolina. He had experience in the production of military equipment, and Glaze was hiring new skilled workers and George was one of them.”

Face of war

For a while, life was just fine for George, Sarah, William and Charlotte. Then the war began, and in February of 1865 Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched his army into Columbia, S.C.

“Sherman burned it, at least a significant part of it, and also destroyed the foundry where George worked,” said Schneider. “Their home escaped destruction, perhaps just by chance, and George became a prominent member of Columbia. He re-established the foundry, purchased it in his own name, and lived into the 20th century.”

Sarah, who did return at least once to Waterford after the war with Charlotte, still has descendants living in the Columbia area.

“It turns out that there are relatives still living in Columbia,” said Schneider. “We were able to make contact with them, and I’m hoping that someone in those families have the letters that were sent from Waterford to Sarah by her sisters. Does the other side of the correspondence exist? That’s the question I’m asking, and maybe it does.”

Schneider says his interest in the Shields’ family was heightened when he picked up Amy Murrell Taylor’s 2005 book, “The Divided Family in Civil War America.”

“Her book talks about the inherent conflicting feelings that arose between family members during the Civil War,” said Schneider. “There were close families that were divided on both sides of this irrepressible conflict, and it was interesting to see how we had the same situation right here in Waterford.”

While Schneider has looked through all the letters pertaining to Sarah and her relatives in upstate New York, there is plenty left in the Eddy Collection.

“This is a massive collection, so I’ll be spending the new few years going through it,” he said.

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