I first heard of George Lavis when I was a little boy. One afternoon, as I sat at my aunt’s feet arranging my blue and gray toy soldiers on the living room rug, I asked her if anyone from our family was a soldier in the Civil War. More than a half century later, I remember how she looked up from her book and said, “My great grandfather went away to the Civil War and never came back. He left my poor great grandmother to raise five children on her own.” With that, she shook her head and returned to her book.
So I began my lifelong interest in the Civil War with the assumption that my ancestor had served in the war, but deserted, or became a carpetbagger, or some other such dishonorable thing. Years went by and I developed other interests and pastimes, never giving much thought to our family’s legacy or those who might have gone before me. My fascination with the Civil War never really disappeared, as I discovered when my son asked me the same question that I had asked my aunt. So, my son and I leaped into the on line depths of Civil War data and searched all our family names: Fouhy, Mahoney, and Lavis.
As we scanned the thousands of names on the rosters, we found no Fouhys, and too many Mahoneys to investigate, but two names jumped out at us in Company F, 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - William Lavis and George Lavis. I knew my grandmother had an uncle, named Charlie Lavis – could these two soldiers be related to our family?
The federal census records are a wonderful resource. I had a few hours to spare one day, so I plowed through the microfiche reels at the Federal Records Center and found the Boston census for 1860. Within the endless street lists I located the only Lavis family in Boston. George, the father, was a tailor born in Ireland. His eldest son, William, age 17, was also born in Ireland. I found the names of George’s wife, Margaret, and the other children, Richard, Lawrence, Mary E., and George – Charlie was born later. I happened to share my findings with my oldest sister, Mary Ellen, who was very interested in my research. When I asked her if she thought this was our Lavis family, she replied, “Of course, ‘Mary E.’ was our grandmother’s mother. I’m named after her.” I was onto something, but I never expected what was to follow.
I mailed a request to the National Archives for the military records of George and William Lavis. After several weeks a thick manila envelope arrived, and it was a true treasure. I learned that William Lavis, my great granduncle, enlisted in the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers as a teenager in November 1861. He probably fought at the Second Battle of Manassas, was promoted to corporal, and was discharged because of his health in 1863.
But George Lavis, William’s father and my great-great-grandfather, had a more extraordinary story. Some time after William was discharged from the 28th Massachusetts, George decided to enlist in his son’s regiment. At 41 years of age he was one of the oldest men in the unit and the lowest ranking. Why did he do it? Maybe he was out of work and needed the enlistment bonus. Maybe it was because every able bodied man around him was in uniform. Maybe he was looking for adventure or an escape from the drudgery of daily work. Maybe he was seeking the chance to prove his courage, his grit, his manhood. Maybe it was out of a sense of duty to his adopted country. Probably it was a combination of all these things, but we’ll never know for sure.
George signed the muster of Company F, William’s former company, with an “X” on March 28, 1864. He quickly traveled to join the regiment in Virginia, where the Union Army was preparing to attack the Army of Northern Virginia. He went into action during the Battle of the Wilderness and was shot through the lungs on May 5, 1864. His entire service career spanned 39 days before he was wounded. But what happened next?
For many years we had only a vague idea of what became of George Lavis. One source indicated that his wounds were fatal, but where was he buried? Finally, one day my son stumbled upon a photo of a graveyard and noticed a headstone for a soldier named, “George Leavis.” When he looked closer he saw the notation, “Co F, 28 Regt, Mass. Inf.” This had to be our ancestor’s grave.
We eventually learned that Private George Lavis was transported from the Wilderness battlefield to the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. It is highly probable that, at some point, he met a kindly gentleman, named Walt Whitman, who visited the hospital daily. It is also possible that President Abraham Lincoln stopped by his bedside on one of his many visits to the Armory Square Hospital. On May 28, 1864 George Lavis passed away from his wounds. His death register entry was signed by Dr. Willard Bliss, who would later tend to President Garfield’s fatal gunshot wound. Because his wife couldn’t afford to have his body shipped home to Boston, Private Lavis was buried in a new soldiers’ cemetery nearby. The grave was on the grounds of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation, not far from the hospital. George was laid to rest within two weeks of the first burial, in grave number 455, in the new military graveyard that we know today as Arlington National Cemetery.
Later this year, I will gather at Arlington with some of the other descendants of George Lavis, now numbering well over 200 people, for the family memorial that he never had. If we can all come together, there will be teachers, bankers, lawyers, a judge, mothers, fathers, business executives, and army officers all gathered around a poor, illiterate, foreign-born soldier’s grave. We will take pride that our great-great-grandfather lies in our nation’s most sacred ground with presidents, astronauts, statesmen, generals, and other heroes, many, like him, who gave everything they had for this nation.
I hope that somewhere George Lavis will be able to witness the gathering at his grave, proud of his children, knowing that, in the end, he gave his life so that his adopted land would grow into a nation where even the descendants of immigrants can attain their dreams in freedom and dignity.
I hope somehow George Lavis will see us all - and I hope he’ll smile.