SUBMITTED BY: Graham Kent Strickland
SUMMARY WRITTEN BY: Mario Benavente
The November 1986 issue of The State magazine included the story of Graham Kent Strickland’s thirty-plus year search for information about his great-great grandfather, Thomas Strickland, of Cumberland County.(1) In the beginning, Graham Kent’s search was difficult, and those of us who have also endeavored to uncover facts surrounding family stories about the Civil War can certainly relate. Many of his eventual discoveries would disprove aspects of the folklore that had been passed down from his father. Still, his research brought greater attention to a seldom recognized fatal railroad accident that was overshadowed by the even deadlier battles taking place across the country at the time. Examining Graham Kent’s article “The Search for Thomas” offers valuable insight into how worthwhile research can resolve a longstanding puzzle in one’s ancestry.
Graham Kent knew his great-great-grandfather’s name—Thomas Strickland— his great-great-grandmother’s name—Susan Gay—and that Thomas had been killed during the Civil War at Drewry’s Bluff, VA. Family folklore claimed that Thomas had been captured by Union soldiers and taken as a prisoner of war, but, while being transferred, he perished in a railroad accident. An early set-back for Graham Kent’s first foray into research came when no mention of a railroad accident at Drewry’s Bluff, nor a record of Thomas’ death at the battle of Drewry’s Bluff, were present at the State Archives in Raleigh. Months later, Mrs. Carolyn Hager, who is described poignantly as “a genealogist who tolerates no guesswork or false assumption in ancestor-hunting,” provided some encouraging documents. Once able to verify Thomas’ marriage to Susan Gay after locating their marriage license and uncovering details about their lives in the 1860 Cumberland County census, Graham Kent was reassured that his search could still be successful.
Several years later, a business trip to Fayetteville, NC put Graham Kent in touch with other folks researching their family histories. While swapping information, a corrected roster of Cumberland County Confederates came into his possession, revealing Thomas J. Strickland’s service record. Conscripted on April 12, 1862 to Company ‘I’ of the 51st NC Infantry, Thomas had survived the Confederate assault at Drewry’s Bluff in May 1864. It wasn’t until his unit was sent as reinforcements to aid the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Cold Harbor several weeks later that he was captured. Lieutenant McKethen described the situation leading to the capture of Confederate soldiers at Cold Harbor, stating that “the order to retire was not understood by part of our men and they were cut off…until entirely surrounded” by Union soldiers. On June 11, 1864, Thomas was taken to a Union prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. He was to be sent to another Union prison in Elmira, New York, and began the journey boarding the steamboat “Crescent” along with 823 other Confederate prisoners.
On July 15, 1864, after disembarking in New York and boarding an Erie Railroad train, Graham Kent’s article describes that the accident occurred after “a blind curve two miles west of the town of Shohola [where] the train holding Strickland met with a coal train with 50 loaded cars.” His description of “the thundering of telescoping box cars” is vivid, and the immediate loss of life included Thomas and over 50 others. Graham Kent notes that, while this probably ranks as “very high among the worst accidents in American railroading,” it was not widely reported on at the time, due to the events of the war that had death tolls overshadowing this accident. It was, in fact, the third deadliest railroad accident of the nineteenth century. Although originally buried by the tracks in Shohola, PA, Thomas Strickland and the others who died in the accident were later interred at the Shohola Monument at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York in 1911.
Graham Kent was thrilled that he was finally able to track down and confirm his family’s connection to the Civil War. Though he started with folklore, he now couples those ancestral stories with documented facts and enjoys the peace of mind that comes from knowing what really happened to his great-great-grandfather Thomas Strickland.
1. Strickland, G.K. (1986, November). The Search for Thomas. The State: Down Home In North Carolina, Vol. 54(6), 20-22.