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Where we live: Research can stretch far beyond family

By Chris Reber

There were 1,500 casualties in the battle of Savage’s Station, a Civil War battle which took place in 1862 near Richmond, Virginia.

The battle involved famous generals like Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, but isn’t widely known because it ended with no clear winner.

I only learned about it because one of those who died in the fighting was a soldier from Eckley, Pennsylvania, named John Williamson.

I heard about the battle from a historian whose work honors Civil War soldiers who came from the coal region.

I met Melanie Akren-Dickson as she came to Mauch Chunk Cemetery to visit the grave of another Civil War soldier from the area, William Boyd. Boyd is her first cousin, four times removed.

Her research into Williamson, William Boyd, and Boyd’s wife Mary forms a great example of how much can be uncovered by researching genealogy.

Though she lives in Virginia, Akren-Dickson likely knows more than most locals about the role that coal region soldiers played in the Civil War.

For her first book, she researched an autograph book which once belonged to Boyd’s wife and was handed down to her from her grandmother.

She’s currently working on a book based on the letters of John Williamson, who was in the war for just eight months before he died.

Akren-Dickson also led an effort to have a military grave marker placed where Boyd is buried in the Mauch Chunk Cemetery. Twelve members of the Boyd family are buried in the plot, but William, the patriarch, had no headstone or mention of his military service until now.

The marker was placed just before Memorial Day.

Akren-Dickson feels a special connection to the Eckley Miners’ Village and the soldiers who came from it.

There is often a paradox with genealogy research. To the descendants doing the research, each new discovery is monumental. To anyone who doesn’t share that blood relation, it’s harder to get as excited. Even some relatives don’t get excited about learning their family history.

Occasionally when I’m interviewing someone for a story, they ask about my family history. It’s odd to think that other people have an interest in my deceased relatives. But Akren-Dickson’s research is a reminder that there can be information from our own genealogy which can be interesting to strangers.

Akren-Dickson’s research should be fascinating for anyone who has an interest in life in the coal region in the 19th century. She has turned a journey into her family’s history into something which is relevant to people beyond her family.

It is just an example of the vast knowledge available by doing genealogy research.

Her book “This, Their Friendship’s Monument: How finding an 1800s autograph album led to a quest for a lost town and its people in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania” is available in paperback and as an e-book from Amazon.