by: Treelines Team
Actor Chris O'Donnell is on a quest to learn more about his paternal line in memory of his father, who passed away a couple years ago. Even just recollecting his father during this episode's intro gets him choked up.
With the help of his niece and Ancestry.com, he starts with a tree going up to his father's grandmother, Mary McEnnis. He hasn't heard this last name before and is curious to learn more about this new line...
...especially since his niece shows him an online listing for an account that Mary's father wrote about the 1849 St. Louis cholera epidemic. Off to St. Louis Chris goes to view this account in person.
It turns out that Chris' great-great-grandfather Michael, as the son of the former superintendant of the Catholic cemetery, buried many of the cholera victims himself. The tragic story of one widow, who brought her last child to be buried and expected to soon die herself, still made him emotional even when he wrote the account 58 years later.
St. Louis was one of the hardest hit places when this epidemic swept the nation. 10% of the population was killed; up to 88 people were buried a day. It was a devastating disease that killed people within hours.
A parenthetical mention of Michael's service in the Mexican War sends Chris to Washington, DC next. It turns out that in June 1846, less than a month after war was declared, Michael enlisted for a year. after he marched to Santa Fe, upon arrival he learned that his father died, so he applied for and received a discharge to return home to look after his family.
At the Smithsonian Museum, an amazing artifact is brought out for Chris to see -- the very sword Michael carried in the war (which he "somehow" kept, just as Chris "somehow" kept his sword from The Three Musketeers). Some people have all the luck -- a first-person account and a priceless artifact!
At the Smithsonian Chris reads a 1911 newspaper article about Michael. It mentions that Michael is the ninth generation of his family in the US (making Chris the 13th!), and his grandfather, George McNeir, served in the War of 1812. Next stop: Baltimore, where George served.
While there, Chris learns that George was a tailor whose business was so affected the British naval blockade that he had to join the Sea Fencibles for the pay. After just a few months of service, he, too, requested and received a discharge on the grounds of family circumstances!
That the letters for both Michael & George's discharges were preserved is also extremely rare. Wow.
During George's short service, he commanded cannoneers at one of the most notable battles in all of U.S. history, the Bombardment of Ft. McHenry.
The British had spent the war burning towns to destroy the American's will to fight, and in August 1814 they burned the capital city. Now they turned their attention to the major port of Baltimore. Only Ft. McHenry stood between the British ships in the harbor and the city.
On Sep. 13th the British bombarded the fort continously for 25 hours. They had 190 lb. cannons with a range of 2 miles. The Americans had no weapons that could reach the ships, so they were ordered to cease fire. They hunkered down for a long evening like "pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at."
At 7 AM in the morning the British ceased fire. The silence was ominous. George and the other men inside the fort must have wondered what would happen next.
The ships sailed away.
The British had run out of ammunition without destroying the fort. Baltimore was saved.
At 9 AM the tattered flag flying outside the fort was replaced with a giant one. A lawyer who witnessed the scene was so moved he wrote... "The Star-Spangled Banner!"
"My dad would be so excited to know this," Chris reflected.
From his great-great-grandfather, "the ultimate Eagle Scout," to his four-times great-grandfather, who helped make history, to all of the other generations in his family's very long history in the U.S., Chris was proud of what he learned not only for himself, but especially for his kids.