Calif. woman discovers Civil War roots
Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.
APPLE VALLEY, Calif. — A woman’s curiosity about her heritage led her some 150 years back in time to a bloody Civil War battlefield.
Jody Vann learned from her mother that her great-grandfather was Walter Niles, a Civil War soldier who fought for the Union with the 24th Michigan Infantry.
Mary Frazier, 89, who lives at the Rock Spring senior facility in Apple Valley, told Vann about a series of letters Niles wrote to his family between 1862 and 1865.
Vann was intrigued by her mother’s stories and began doing some research online. She discovered that a book had recently been released that included nearly 100 letters from her great-grandfather, Niles.
“The book is called ‘This is from Walter’ and it includes letters and historical photos that were compiled and published by the Sanilac County Historical Society last year,” Vann said,
According to the book’s forward, Niles’ unit fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Port Royal, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
In 1863, Niles was wounded on the battlefield and was trapped behind Rebel lines after a Confederate surgeon removed a bullet from his back. Niles was later rescued by Union forces.
Sitting on her couch surrounded by copies of the Niles book, old news clippings and photos, Frazier held up a copy of Niles’ letter dated Sept. 18, 1863, which was written from a U.S. General Hospital and not included in the book.
“The letter was about the mini-ball or bullet that went through Walter’s chest and lung, missed his heart and lodged near his spine,” Vann said. “In another letter, Walter shared how the doctor cut out the bullet and gave it to him as a souvenir.”
Frazier said before she was 8 years old, she held the letters that were eventually donated to the historical society by Niles’ grandson, Walter J. Niles of Croswell, in 1974.
Besides the letters, Niles’ grandson also donated the bullet that was pulled from his grandfather’s back, the book revealed.
“We have a pretty historical family,” Frazier said. “I married James Frazier while he was in the Navy and I was in high school. One of my daughters was born while James was in Pearl Harbor in 1941.”
Frazier said she did not tell her mom about the marriage until her husband returned from the war during her senior year of high school.
“As we sit here and look at the Civil War-era letters and old photos, I can’t get out of my mind that we wouldn’t be here if Walter Niles died in battle,” said Vann, as she clutched a box of photos.
Vann said a wounded Niles was discharged from the army in July 1865, married twice, and was the father to four children from his first marriage.
Frazier said Niles returned to Gettysburg for the dedication of a monument to the 24th Michigan Infantry and was among roughly 50,000 veterans who returned for the 50th anniversary reunion of the battle.
Susan Clarkson, a member of the Sanilac County Genealogical Society who worked on the book project, said she was surprised to hear about Niles’ California relative.
“Walter Niles died in 1928, just before I was born, and now we’re in California talking about this Civil War family connection” Frazier said. “It’s funny how time and circumstance has put this puzzle together.”