Ulster & Virginia – Genealogy
Discovering Your Transatlantic Family Connections
by Dr William Roulston, Research Director, Ulster Historical Foundation
William Roulston is Research Director of the Ulster Historical Foundation. A native of Bready, County Tyrone, he holds a PhD in Archaeology from Queen's University, Belfast. He has researched and written on a number of aspects of 17th- and 18th-century Ulster and is the author of 'Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors' (Belfast, 2005) and 'Restoration Strabane, 1660–1714' (forthcoming Dublin, 2007).
Captain James Fleming – Union soldier from County Antrim
On the afternoon of Monday, 8 August 1864 Captain John McMenamin of the 15th New York Volunteer Cavalry and Captain James Fleming of the 16th New York Volunteer Cavalry had halted for a few hours at St Mary’s Church in Fairfax, Virginia. It was a chance for their troops to rest and eat and also feed and water their horses. The church had been built a few years before this by Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Shortly after 5 pm word was received that a troop of Confederate cavalry was approaching. The Union troops formed a battle line, but when charged by the Confederates fled in disarray. When the skirmish was over five of the Union troops were dead, including Captain Fleming, eight were wounded and twenty were captured. Fleming was buried in an unmarked grave at Falls Church Cemetery.
Although no memorial marks his final resting place in Virginia, he is commemorated thousands of miles away in a churchyard in the town of Antrim. The burial place in question is that adjoining the former Unitarian or Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church. Here a headstone, sadly now broken, within a metal surround records the death of Captain Fleming. It records that he was killed ‘by a gang of Guerillas’ and was only 32 years of age when he died. The inscription actually gives the wrong year – 1863 instead of 1864. Of his life in Ireland virtually nothing is known. He must have been born around 1832 and perhaps went to America while still a relatively young man. It is known that he enlisted in Company M of the 16th New York Volunteer Cavalry on 27 July 1863 in Albany. He initially held the rank of 1st lieutenant and quartermaster before being promoted to captain in November of that year.
The gravestone in Antrim provides additional information on Fleming's family. He was the son of Malcolm and Ann Jane Fleming, both of whom died in 1869 aged, respectively, 86 and 82. Also commemorated was a sister of James, Sarah Jane, who died in America in 1855 aged 33. A brother named Malcolm died in 1864. According to the headstone, Malcolm Fleming senior was ‘of Larne’ when he commissioned the memorial, though clearly he had some connection with Antrim, perhaps having been born there. Griffith’s Valuation of c.1860, the first truly comprehensive property survey in Ireland, records householders named Malcolm Fleming in both Larne and Antrim – possibly representing the father and son of the headstone.
An examination of the Ulster Historical Foundation's marriage database reveals two marriages of sons of Malcolm Fleming where Larne was given as the residence of the groom. In 1855 Thomas Fleming married Nancy Harper in Templepatrick Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church while in 1857 Alexander Fleming married Agnes Hamilton in Larne 1st Presbyterian Church. In both instances the occupation of the father of the groom was given as 'nursery man'. These brief forays into the history of one family with a Virginia connection reveal what can be achieved with a little bit of digging. No doubt much more could be uncovered about the family of Captain James Fleming with further research.
Captain James Capston – Confederate secret agent from County Antrim
As gravestone inscriptions frequently provide a starting point for further genealogical research it is worth highlighting several further memorials with a Virginia connection. Staying in the town of Antrim, the churchyard adjoining All Saints Church of Ireland contains another memorial with an American Civil War connection. It begins, 'Burying ground of Captain James Capston of Richmond, Virginia, America'. It then records the death of his father Matthew in 1864, his mother Sara in 1852 and brothers James, Henry and Alexander. Of his Irish background little can be said at this stage. His sister Ann married James McDonald in Muckamore Church of Ireland church in 1853. The occupation of Ann’s father was given as sexton, presumably of the church in which she married. While there is no Matthew Capston among the householders listed in Griffith’s Valuation, there is a Matthew Catson of Tirgracey in the Grange of Muckamore who must surely be the captain's father.
Of his life in America a little more is known. Captain Capston was a slave-owning Confederate officer. In 1863, while still a lieutenant, he was sent back to Ireland as a secret agent by the Confederate States of America to assist Father John Bannon – known as the ‘Confederacy’s fighting chaplain’ – to discourage Irishmen from joining the Union army. In April 1864 Capston reported back that if given enough time he could secure the signatures of half a million people in Ireland on a peace petition. Possibly it was while he was still in Ireland that his father died and so he had the headstone erected to his memory. There are the makings of a fascinating story here, but one that still has to be fully researched and written.
Rev John Williamson and Eliza Hall
Two more inscriptions will suffice for giving a flavour of the Ulster-Virginia connections. In the same churchyard in which Fleming is commemorated there is a further headstone recording the death of an Ulsterman in Virginia. The Revd John Williamson died at Norfolk, Virginia, in January 1863 aged just 25. He was the son of William and Sarah Williamson of Antrim. One of his brothers, William, became a solicitor in Antrim.
Finally in the churchyard attached to Aghalee Church of Ireland church in south County Antrim a large ledger commemorates Eliza, daughter of John Hall of Mount Prospect near Moira, and wife of Thomas Neilson of Petersburg, Virginia, who died in 1825 aged 25. The inscription records that she died at the house of her father. One can only speculate on the circumstances in which she died. She may have returned home to visit her family or possibly her husband had gone on ahead and she was waiting to join him.
Ulster Historical Foundation
In their own small way, each of these memorials is a physical reminder of the links between Ulster and Virginia. For those who wish to pursue their Ulster ancestry further there are a number of ways to do this. Over the last 50 years, through conferences, lecture tours and commissioned research, the Ulster Historical Foundation has assisted thousands of people with an Ulster-Virginia connection to find out more about their family history. For more information on how we can help you discover your roots please visit our website.