- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - Ken Dice tracked his lineage through the generational layers, so he knew a little about building family trees when he embarked on an unusual quest. Dice is methodically sifting through records to find the living descendants of the Virginia Military Institute cadets who 150 years ago marched in the rain and muck from their Lexington campus to New Market.

There, they bolstered weakened Confederate forces and helped to pivot the battle in the South’s favor. Ten of the 257 cadets lost their lives. Dice’s task is to track the 247 cadets who survived and to look for the families of the commanders, drummers, fifer and those who stood by to guard VMI.

So far, he’s found more than 1,000 living descendants whom VMI has invited to attend the 150th re-enactment of the battle at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park the weekend of May 16-18. If the cadets went forth and multiplied the way demographers would expect, there should be 100 times that many living descendants.

But a book published in the early 1900s by a VMI historian suggests that an extraordinary number of cadets, more than 30 percent, never married or fathered children. And of those who did, many of their families appear to have died out, Dice said.

Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist with the Demographics Research Group at Weldon Cooper Center, said, “15 percent of each generation would either not marry or marry and not have children. The 15 percent doesn’t change much over time.”

At that rate, Lombard said, the cadet soldiers should have about 100,000 surviving progeny today.

Dice’s search to find them began two years ago when he attended a meeting with members of his class of 1964 who were preparing for their 50th reunion, an event that coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market.

“Someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find some of the descendants?’?” Dice said. His hobby was tracing his family’s genealogy, so he volunteered to give it a try.

Amateur genealogists are familiar with the traditional pattern of tracking a family’s history: Start with yourself at the top of the family tree and work backward, branch by branch, building an ever-widening base until the roots are buried so deeply that they can no longer be traced.

To find the cadets’ descendants, the pattern was reversed. Dice started with a cadet and worked forward, scouring marriage and death records, to find his survivors.

“It’s a hard task,” Lombard said. “It’s easier to go backward, and even that is difficult.”

Dice said his search was aided by a tremendous resource. “The Corps Forward,” written by Col. William Couper, contains a biographical sketch of all who were at Virginia Military Institute. The book was first published in 1933, but Couper writes of correspondence that he had with some of the cadets from around 1900.

“It was serendipity that I came across the book. One of my classmates gave a copy to everyone on the committee,” he said.

Couper was a VMI historiographer. He had conducted a similar search to the one Dice would carry forward nearly a century later. He found the cadets, or their families, and asked each to fill out a brief biographical sketch. These were then compiled in his book. Each entry lists where a cadet was born, when he died or where he was then living, who he married, the names of his children and his profession.

From there, Dice picked up the trail.

“The book lists 295 who were directly or indirectly involved in the Battle of New Market. There were 20 who stayed at VMI as guards, 257 who went into battle, and the number includes staff, the drummers, fifer and commanders,” Dice said.

Dice started with the first name and worked it forward. Then it was on to the next name. He’s made it all the way through the book, though not all the way through each of the cadets.

“There were 83 that never married (including the 10 who died because of the battle); 30 married but did not have children. Then I have another 61 that I’m working on that I have yet to find a living descendant, or the family just died out.” Dice said. “To me, it’s a mystery. I come across somebody, and I think, where can I look next to find this person? It’s interesting that families die out.”

Lombard said Dice’s search would be complicated by the exodus of Virginians following the war. Some headed west.

“A lot left the country. Some politically didn’t want to be part of the U.S. anymore,” he said. Of those who emigrated, many went to South America. “It had a similar plantation economy,” he said.

Dice found one cadet who did this and many others who moved west. He found one who went to England; one of his descendants plans to come to the re-enactment.

His search begins with U.S. Census records. He uses several Internet tools and websites to access government records, and he taps into libraries and newspaper archives to read obituaries, looking for survivors and carrying them forward to the present. And he’s done some traveling. One Richmond cemetery holds the graves of 20 to 30 former cadets.

He meticulously documents his source material in following the chain that leads him to believe that a person is a descendant of one of the cadets. That packet is then sent to VMI, which forwards it to the descendant, along with an invitation to the re-enactment.

Dice said that he has yet to hear from any who did not know of the family connection to VMI and New Market, and several descendants have contacted him with more information that helps to uncover even more descendants.

So far, 177 descendants have accepted the invitation. VMI reports that of those, 20 are VMI alumni; three have more than one New Market cadet as an ancestor, and two are current cadets.

Dice is running short on time and knows he won’t be able to find all the living descendants. But if he finds a few more obits, he can work those forward as well. He hasn’t the time to dig further into the lives of individuals, though he is curious.

“A real genealogist would do a lot more digging than I did and find out exactly where they lived, what they did in a profession. I concentrated just on finding the next generation,” he said.


How to attend

The Virginia Military Institute is inviting descendants of the Civil War Battle of New Market to attend a re-enactment May 16-18. Any descendant of a New Market soldier, whether Union, Confederate or VMI cadet, is invited to attend free of charge. To obtain a pass, descendants should contact Maj. Troy Marshall at 540-333-3270 or [email protected]


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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