FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Gloria Ramsaur had never seen anything like it.
A blue-tinged scroll, resting atop a stack of family records inside a trusty old aluminum footlocker at her grandmother's house.
She unfurled it for the first time. Four feet wide. Inside, a meticulous, handwritten family tree revealed the next surprise for the avid family historian.
"I remember screaming," Ramsaur said. "I went running to my husband, 'I don't believe this.' "
She'd found the name of a great-great-uncle — William G. Hightower — and a note about his death: Killed at the Battle of Franklin, 1864.
Now 150 years removed from the war — commemorations continue today in Franklin — many families still have untold stories to uncover. The historical record is actually growing, not fading, with discoveries of new material and technological advances that make it all easier to explore.
If only they'll look.
"A lot of families might not even know what they have," Ramsaur said.
The revelation about her ancestor awakened an especially vivid picture. For years, Ramsaur, 74, had guided tours through the McGavock Confederate Cemetery where the battle's casualties were buried. She had studied and walked the grounds of her ancestor's burial, never knowing her personal connection.
"It was so emotional for me," she said. "That's what has drawn me back."
She's not alone. The 150th anniversary brings a new wave of interest in the Civil War, and new resources in local and state archives.
For researchers — casual and professional — the war makes for a complicated moment.
It was a time when valuable records were destroyed, but also a watershed period for creating detailed accounts and setting modern record keeping in motion.
In Tennessee, fires damaged or destroyed more than a dozen county courthouses during the war. Troves of records were confiscated and taken north.
"That's something that we live with on a daily basis," said Darla Brock, archivist with the Tennessee State Library and Archives. "It's a sorrowful thing that does affect our records."
Yet for genealogical research, a family with a war connection provides a springboard, Brock said, and "kind of a guarantee that we're going to have something."
"There's so much human drama in these documents — and we certainly want to connect these to the families," she said.
In a massive volume that binds together prison records, Brock recently pointed to colorful descriptions, like the tattoos on one man, or another described as a suspected guerrilla fighter.
Hospital records recount seemingly basic, yet evocative, details: the height, weight and eye color of a long-forgotten ancestor.
Bad outcomes at the hospital mean a researcher might next check a cemetery burial log. One Nashville company buried 40,000, marking each time a fatal disease or gunshot wound, or even one entry for death by exhaustion during an amputation.
Where life did go on, records followed. Tennessee owns an exceptionally rare collection of Union Provost Marshal files. These military police records recount the close monitoring and control exerted over citizens during wartime, including documentation about suspected spies and allegations of disloyalty and crimes.
"There's just story after story as you turn the page," Brock said.
In the aftermath, Nashvillians filed claims of wartime damage to their homes. And most everything — and anyone — who moved by rail had to be approved. Widows, destitute soldiers, schoolteachers and refugees come alive in the weathered pages.
"You may have information about people in history who otherwise have fallen through the cracks," Brock said.
At age 97, Maurice Johnson still remembers the dirt road that connected him to his family's Civil War legacy.
He walked the path as a boy in Southside in Montgomery County, down to the general store, to collect the monthly $25 war pension that was still being paid out for his grandfather's service.
But for most of his life, Johnson knew little more than that memory.
Two years ago, a neighbor in Johnson's retirement home took interest in the story. The friend happens to be expert genealogist Dave Dowell, and Johnson soon knew a whole lot more, thanks to the historical record.
"I knew of these forefathers," he said. "I didn't really get too interested until Dave came here."
Dowell used some of the most fruitful records available: pension applications, in which soldiers had to prove their service and injuries.
Johnson learned that his grandfather, Simmons Talley, fought and was injured in the Battle of Franklin in his 20s.
Like others who get the spark, Johnson wanted more. With his grown children, he traveled to Montgomery County to look back at his childhood homes and to find family burial sites.
They lost their way once that afternoon on a rural lane. But a resident assured them that what they wanted was close by, in a dense thicket. There, cane in hand, Johnson found and photographed his grandfather's headstone.
He wants to make sure the experience and the story don't slip away. He included the details in a personal history he wrote for his family.
"I knew snippets of it," he said. "I've pieced it all together now."
Last month, Gloria Ramsaur made her own pilgrimage to a gravesite.
As part of a Civil War descendants reunion at Carnton Plantation, she walked the rows of nearly 1,500 headstones in search of the great-great-uncle who turned up in her family's scroll.
For 11 years, Ramsaur had lived just two miles from the cemetery in a historic home on Lewisburg Pike. She volunteered often at the plantation and had become well versed in local history.
Her personal interest came somewhat later. Now, walking the grounds, she's reached another milestone.
Her ancestor's inscription, "WGH," seemed familiar when she found it. Those years before, in period costume, she'd walked these rows.
Like others in the cemetery that day, she laid a white rose at the headstone.
"These events put me in real life, of hearing stories and seeing photographs and learning how, through the generations, how the stories are being held so dear," Ramsaur said. "I saw that more strongly this year, for this descendants reunion."
She noticed some families brought their children.
"As a mother, as a grandmother, it shows that a lot of people still have that connection with what went on," she said. "And we like to share, and we like to remember. And we're not going to let anybody forget, that's for sure."
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com