Historian traces roots of local Civil War ancestors
Truckee-resident Peter Johnston Binckley’s chair looks pretty simple. The wood is a little battered, and it sits low to the ground. One of the chair’s legs broke off at some point and was fixed without much care. It has no intricate design, no shiny finish.
It’s not the look of the chair that is exceptional, however, it’s the story behind the chair.
Binckley’s treasure was the campaign chair of Confederate Army General Joseph E. Johnston – Binckley’s great-great-grand uncle. The chair has been passed through the family since Johnston died in 1891.
Now Binckley is trying to find a museum for the heirloom.
“My dad wanted it in a museum,” he said. “I worry about my house catching fire or something. It would really be a tragedy to not have it protected.”
On Wednesday, Binckley took his chair to meet Civil War historian Clay Feeter at The Bookshelf in Truckee.
For the past 15 years, Feeter has been studying and researching Civil War ancestry. This year, the Pistol River, Ore.-resident will tour 160 independent bookstores and historical societies nationwide.
In addition to doing quick searches for ancestors on a Civil War database (Feeter charges $30 for a more complete report), the historian is also compiling unpublished copies of letters from the Civil War for his upcoming book, “Letters Home from the Civil War.”
Feeter said his visit to Truckee has been special – it’s not every day he gets to meet a descendent of a Civil War general.
“Usually I see descendents of dirt-farmer privates or corporals,” Feeter joked.
Although Binckley already knew most of the history behind his famous uncle – General Johnston was arguably the fourth most notable Confederate general in the war – he visited Feeter to ask which museum he should approach about the campaign chair.
After printing out a few pages with a biography on General Johnston, Feeter suggests Binckley look into the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., as a home for his chair.
Feeter’s knowledge doesn’t end with facts about the Civil War. He has studied the battle stories and the varied perspectives that came from the Union and Confederate armies – stories most history books don’t tell.
In Binckley’s case, Feeter tells him a story he hasn’t found in his research about his uncle.
In 1862, General Johnston, who was in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, was severely wounded in a battle at Fair Oaks. The general begged a young private to go back to Johnston’s home in Virginia, and grab two pistols that belonged to his father, who was Revolutionary War hero Peter Johnston (Binckley’s namesake).
Once the private returned, Johnston gave one of the pistols to the young man, Feeter said.
After the Fair Oaks battle and Johnston’s injury, Robert E. Lee replaced Johnston. Many historians argue that if Johnston hadn’t been wounded, he would have attained Lee’s standing as the most prominent Confederate general in the war, Feeter said.
Feeter will continue his US tour, visiting 15 to 20 events per month until the end of the year. Since almost half of Americans are descendents of Civil War ancestors, he said he encourages people to take a look at their past, because they might be surprised about what they discover.
“You can’t believe how many people have found a box in the corner of their garage that grandma left behind,” Feeter said. “When they open it, they might be very surprised with what they find.”
Clay Feeter also publishes a Web site, thehistorycalendar.com. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (541) 247-0936.