Written by Andy Newman, email@example.com Friday, 12 July 2013 00:00
The Battle of Gettysburg isn’t just history. It’s local history. After all, Great Neck sent four men into the killing grounds of southern Pennsylvania a century and a half ago this month. Today, we are reminded of these men thanks to Matthew Moshen. Fighting the Civil War from Great Neck were Daniel A. Cornell, Augustus Finkmann, George Messemer and Louis Wanson/Wansor.
Two years ago, the Great Neck resident begin searching on the Internet to see how far back he could trace his family tree. He had no idea that the project would be so revealing and rewarding, and that it would spark in him an intense interest in the Civil War and those from the North Hempstead area who participated.
A timely discovery by Moshen, in light of the current commemoration of the 150th year anniversary of the battle, where more than 60 men from the North Shore fought in what historians say was the turning point of the war. In addition to the 19 from Manhasset, Moshen found documentation that revealed 18 from Roslyn, nine from Port Washington, five from Westbury and four each from Great Neck and Sea Cliff.
“It directly ties us to the Civil War,” Moshen said of how his research relates to our area. “We are part of American history.”
He initially found out that his family came to the Colonies from England early in the 17th century, and that two of his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. But what fascinated him especially was his discovery that three of his family, then rooted in the South, fought for the Union during the Civil War, and that an uncle may have fought on the Rebel side.
“While I was looking up my own genealogy,” he said, “I started thinking about this area and I wondered who in Great Neck fought in the Civil War. To do this research I used a number of online databases, especially ancestry.com and civilwardata.com. The second site includes extensive information about when each soldier joined the service, their hometown, what rank they achieved, when they were discharged and whether they were wounded or killed in action.” Moshen also found the historical archives at the libraries in Great Neck, Port Washington, Roslyn and Hofstra University of great help.
Moshen had some trouble properly identifying many of the soldiers because records back then sometimes attributed a soldier as being a North Hempstead resident when he actually lived in the Town of Hempstead. “And during the war,” he added, “North Hempstead was still considered to be the easternmost part of Queens.”
During the course of his research, Moshen learned interesting facts about soldiers from the area.
“Great Neck’s Henry McIlvaine was an artillery commander at Harper’s Ferry who had to surrender to Stonewall Jackson,” he said. “Roslyn’s Obadiah Downing served as a major under General Custer and aided a mortally wounded President Lincoln out of Ford Theater to the hotel across the street. Great Neck’s Samuel Day was a white officer of a United States Colored Regiment. Back then, an African-American regiment had to have a white officer in charge.” Moshen found that McIlvaine (according to the 1860 census) owned real estate in Great Neck worth $30,000 and that his personal “estate” was $5,000.
Many of the soldiers from North Hempstead were members of the 119th Infantry. This company was recruited by a Roslyn lawyer, Benjamin Albertson Willis, and was heavily involved in the first two days at Gettysburg. A monument to the 119th is on display at Gettysburg.
Moshen still spends about 10 hours a week on his research. He has compiled an extensive archive of his own and would happily share it with Civil War scholars and students.
“I’d like to put it on the web, but I don’t have the knowhow to build the site,” he said. “I think it would be great for high school students and college students to use for study and research.”
Though it is 150 years after Gettysburg, Moshen sees his work as just a beginning.
“I’d like this to be starting point for people to either do their own genealogy or start to think about the history of this area,” he said.