At Seventeen

There’s a song by Janis Ian that takes me right back to high school.

“I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful …

It’s a great song, no doubt about that, capturing just what it was like to be an “ugly duckling girl like me.” At seventeen, it did indeed feel tragic that few — make that zero — teenage boys saw below the glasses and crooked, chipped teeth to my inner beauty.

I suppose many teenagers are self-obsessed drama queens. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever I look back and realize how many kids I saw every day who were dealing with problems and issues quite beyond my comprehension.

Then I start working on genealogy and feel even more guilty.

Yes, I’ve been crawling around the family tree again, and this time my focus was Charles Christian Bird (alternatively Christian Charles Bird), born in 1844 in Ritchie County, Virginia (newly formed in 1843 from parts of Wood and Lewis County).

In the 1860 census, Charles had attended school within the previous year. He turned 17 early in 1861. His birthday was 2 January if we believe, the 28th January if calculated from listing from cemetery reading in, or the 16th February if we go by the U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans database.

He had a twin sister, Elizabeth, but I can’t find a birth record for her either, and the record for her death doesn’t include a birth date.


Still, such discrepancies are not uncommon in genealogical records for a variety of reasons. Many of my ancestors lived up in the mountains and sometimes didn’t get around to recording births until one of them had cause to go into town.

What’s important is all the sources agree on the year of Charles’ birth, and two agree on the date of his death. The outlier for the death date is based on reading a 100-year-old tombstone, so it’s quite likely the second numeral was simply worn away.

Here are a few more dates:

17 April 1861 — Virginia passed the Virginia Ordinance of Secession, thereby seceding the state from the no-longer United States of America.

11 June 1861 — Delegates of the western counties of Virginia met in Wheeling and nullified the Virginia Ordinance of Secession, thereby seceding from their former state of Virginia.

The whole “seceding from the secession and being admitted as a new state” was somewhat controversial, but there had long been tension between the farmers of west Virginia — who owned less acreage and didn’t depend on slaves — and those in the east who were disproportionately represented in the state legislature. If you’d like to read a little more about this, you can do so here, but far our purposes, it was basically a case of poorer “mountaineers” not wanting to fight a civil war for a cause they didn’t believe in.

This decision wasn’t universally supported, even in what eventually became West Virginia, and I have at least one ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. He’s mentioned in a post about his sister Sarah Jane and also here.

However, the Bird (sometimes spelled Byrd) family must have felt strongly about the situation because on 18 August 1861, two brothers — Charles and 21-year-old Davis (who was already married and possibly had a child on the way) enlisted in Company E of the Sixth Regiment of the West Virginia Infantry at Harrisville, (West) Virginia.

Their 22-year-old brother, Wesley Samuel — the eldest of their siblings and my 2x great grandfather — didn’t enlist, waiting instead to register for the draft in October/November of 1863.

Wesley was the lucky (or possibly the smart) one. Although he didn’t marry my 2x great grandmother until 13 April 1862 and or have their first child, William Francis on 25 June 1862 (if the death certificate from West Virginia Archives is correct) or 28 July 1862 (if is right), he never had to go to war. (And yes, your math is correct. William Francis was apparently — how shall I put this? — extremely premature.)

Wesley’s younger brother, Davis, was less fortunate. His muster cards reflect a lot of time on guard duty, although he did spend two couple of months building a blockhouse at Brandy Gap West Virginia Railroad tunnel. He also became ill twice during his three-year tour of duty, being noted as “present,” but “sick” for both November/December 1862 and January/February 1863. Then in 1864, the January/February card notes him as absent, “sick in hospital at Clarksburg since January 23, 1864.”

Davis was discharged on 10 September 1864, and returned home to his wife and the son who was born while he was at war. His second child, a daughter they called Lucinda, was born the same month her father was discharged.

Wesley and Davis lived to see West Virginia recognized as a state on 20 June 1863, raised their families, and died within a month of each other in 1909.

Charles never made it to his eighteenth birthday, or even out of Harrisville, dying of Typhoid on October 20, 1861, two months and two days after he enlisted.

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