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German-Born, Civil War Vet - Newspaper Help

Updated: Mar 9

I love scouring old newspapers. Sometimes it's about understanding the era, but most often I'm looking for clues in family research. I feel like I hit the jackpot with one Joseph Billman from Erie, PA, a second great-grandfather on my husband's side.

 Joseph Billman remembers Lincoln - Erie Times News Feb.13, 1909
Joseph Billman remembers Lincoln - Erie Times News Feb.13, 1909

We'd known the Billman line was German, but an article from the Erie Times News in February 1909 gave us several more tantalizing clues to pursue about his life and family.

First was his Civil War service. His pension file from the national archives shows that the war had a lasting impact on him. Many of the papers in the pension application address his hearing loss and a hernia both attributed to his time in the Union Army, specifically battles at Cold Harbor, VA and Mine Run, VA. Numerous associates and colleagues gave testimony as to his ability to hear before the war and his almost total loss of hearing in one ear and partial in the other upon his return. It turns out that Joseph was a painter, and that his injuries dramatically impacted his ability to work. One associate wrote, "[he is] now almost impossible to converse with him except upon very violent effort, almost painful at times; that practically by reason of said deafness said Billman is not fit to pursue his business or calling, that of a Painter." Wow - it seems like such a huge impact would have been talked about in the family, but this story, too, had also been lost to the family.

Page from Civial War Pension File - Joseph Billman - NARA
Page from Pension File - Joseph Billman - NARA

A couple other tidbits jumped out of that first story: 1) Joseph was born in Baden and came to the United States at two years old. Several census records show Joseph as born in Baden, so I'm feeling good I'm on the right track. 2) Joseph's parents told him they "crossed in a sailboat and were about six months on the ocean" - hmmmm - sailboat in my mind is a small boat, but I realize that many of the boats in that era were multi-masted ships, so perhaps that's what they meant. I've perhaps found their passenger list, and it was a "bark" which would be this kind boat. Six months doesn't sound right, so I've more digging to do.

Obituary of Joseph Billman - German Born and Civil War Service - Erie Times News Jan.7, 1911
Billman: German & Civil War - Erie Times News 1.7.11

Getting back to those helpful newspaper articles: I do love a good obituary, and Joseph Billman's fits the bill. Joseph's army service was held in high esteem. In attendance were many old solders. We have "Comrade Joseph Billman" (something I've often read in newspaper articles of the era when mentioning Civil War veterans) who served under no less than Generals Mead and Grant. Plus the casket was carried by members of Post 67 G.A.R. - such veneration!

On a family history note, we have an exact birthdate date! This obituary also shows us six children by name and the mention of a brother and sister. Those last two people might just be the same ones that I'm looking at on the 1836 passenger list. I still have a couple inconsistencies, but I'm narrowing in on confirming I have the right people at the right time.

Ahhhhh....I love old newspapers.


Another young private, Robert Israel, kept a diary in 1862 of his experiences. Read our earlier post.


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