Friday, November 6, 2015

Of Warriors, Wars, Weddings and Wimps

By Bob Ferris

My ancestor Major Archibald Alexander (1,2) spent time on the prison ship “Jersey” my sense is that he and others on that hulk did not suffer that deprivation so that the emerging nation and dream could once again become an oligarchy 250 years later.
Although I have a USAA Visa and come from a military family with Civil War generals and several officers who were at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 and even one who spent time on the prison ship “Jersey,” I did not serve in the military.  In fact, I get a little annoyed when folks take my credit card and thank me for my “service.”  I suspect that some of this latter is post-Viet Nam era guilt that I was not completely able to wash away after getting my high draft number (344) and doing a year of teaching service men general education subjects so they could pass the GED test and remain in the service when our nation was culling the less educated from their ranks.  Now being in my early 20's with long hair and a beard teaching a 50-year old Navy Chief Petty Officer and a bunch of enlisted men how to multiply fractions and conjugate verbs had its real challenges, it is not really the same as getting shot at, shot or blown up.  I know that well enough to be offended when someone compares going to a military school with being in the Service.

The Grave of Andrew Ramsay and Catherine Graham Ramsay parents of George Douglas Ramsay, William Wilson Ramsay and Jane Ramsay Turnbull in the Turnbull family plot North Hill site 311 at Oak Hill Cemetery.
I think about this as I prepare to go to a Veterans Day ceremony at my mother’s retirement home that will honor my late father and others who served—mainly during World War II.  On this day I will think about him and my other ancestors who served and often sacrificed much to keep this bold experiment in democracy afloat and safe.  These ancestors are on my mind also because I recently visited the graves of several of my family at Oak Hill Cemetery in DC.
William Ramsay Ferris and Mary Robb Ferris
(nee Settles) on April 9, 1944.

My parents—one from New York and one from California—met because of World War II.  I cannot think of any other natural mechanism at that time for two folks rooted 3000 miles apart to come together.  Moreover, their greatly abbreviated courtship—roughly on the order of a week—would likely not have transpired if not for war’s passion and the sense of urgency and ephemerality it brings.    The war was an awful, but necessary undertaking that ultimately produced a 71-year adventure for two people resulting in four children and a myriad of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that would not be here in this present state without this global conflagration.

Oak Hill brought me other examples of this “bringing together” of people for buried there are William Turnbull (1800-1857) from Pennsylvania and George Douglas Ramsay (1802-1882) who was born in Virginia.  Those two along with William Walton Morris (1801-1865) were classmates at the newly formed military academy at West Point soon after the end of the War of 1812.  All three graduated from the Academy, Turnbull in 1819 and Ramsay and Morris in 1820 along with Morris’ cousin Lewis.  They eventually all served with distinction in the war with Mexico.  They all three moved up through the ranks with Turnbull becoming a Colonel before his death in 1857 and Ramsay and Morris becoming Union generals during the Civil War.
Anne Ramsay (nee Morris) in
later years.

But the three also shared something else that likely was linked to their formative time (understand that Ramsay was only 12 when he entered the academy in 1814) at West Point: They eventually became “family” with Turnbull marrying Ramsay’s sister Jane and the offspring of Ramsay and Morris—Joseph Gales Ramsay and Anne Ritchie Morris—coming together and forming their own family including my great-grandfather William Gouverneur Ramsay (1866-1916).

Col. Turnbull was an engineer while Gen. William Walton Morris, Gen. George Douglas Ramsay, and Lt. Col. Joseph Gales Ramsay were all artillery men.  So it is probably no great surprise that Major William Gouverneur Ramsay with his first name coming from two uncles and a grandfather and his middle moniker taken from a great-great-uncle who is credited with writing great portions of the US Constitution as well as coining the phrase “We the People,” and having a father whose grave stone is basically a giant marble cannonball at Arlington National Cemetery could be anything other than someone who served his country (Spanish-American War) and was an engineer who helped build gunpowder plants for DuPont that were instrumental in helping shift the direction of World War I.

The Ramsay marble cannonball at Arlington.
But war unfortunately is not just about gaining glory, making matrimonial connections or even being true to one’s blood line but it is about monumental losses, destruction and deprivation too.  While Turnbull, Ramsay and Morris got commendations for their participation in battles during the Mexican War, their classmate and Morris' cousin Maj. Lewis N. Morris (named for his Declaration of Independence-signing grandfather) died during battle.

Lt. Andrew Douglas Ramsay
Likewise, buried in another plot in Oak Hill is Lt. Andrew Douglas Ramsay son of Capt. William Wilson Ramsay brother of George Douglas Ramsay and Jane Turnbull (nee Ramsay).  Andrew died in the fourth month of the Civil War when he was shot by a Confederate sharpshooter while trying to recover some lost artillery during the battle of Bull Run.

And my late father—Maj. William Ramsay Ferris—carried some shrapnel he gained as a P-40 pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II along with other effects of being shot down and dealing with bouts of malaria both overseas and upon his return to the States.  I know his decision to become a civil engineer was heavily influenced by his grandfather William G. Ramsay for whom he was named.  I suspect too his initial desire to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis might have been swayed not only by his love of sailing but by stories of Admiral Francis Munroe Ramsay  another of George Douglas Ramsay’s sons who attended Annapolis and distinguished himself on the “Choctaw” and other ships during the Civil War.  Rear Adm. Ramsay died just six years before my father was born so the stories were probably fresh.  Ironically, my father was offered an appointment to West Point which he declined, but eventually ended up attending the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina before leaving there to join the Army Air Corps right after Pearl Harbor.

The USS Ramsay named in honor of Adm. Francis Munroe Ramsay and launched in 1919.  The Ramsay was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and is believed to have sunk one of the Japanese mini-subs.  
On Veterans Day all of these folks and others—ancestors and beyond—will be on my mind as well as their stories.  They all deserve our thanks and we need to honor their sacrifices and memories.  But given our current political situation and the fact that the field of presidential candidates and their supporting cast seems so heavily weighted with folks like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers and others who have profited mightily from the rights and opportunities offered by this fine country, but have done nothing or precious little in terms of the responsibility element of citizenship represented by the above.

To them, candidates and political meddlers alike, I would urge some time for retrospection and request that they realize that they have only been part of this great country for one, two or at most three generations.  One’s attitude towards blithely giving public land in the West to corporations might be different, for instance, if one’s ancestors fought for, bled on or financed the acquisition of that land.  But since we are approaching Thanksgiving, I will sum up this latter idea by saying that all are welcome at a Thanksgiving table (and I had several family members at the original meal), but if you are the party who came late and leaves early thus avoiding cooking, set-up and clean-up and only brought with you an out-of-scale appetite and a boardinghouse reach, please do not think that you are entitled to complain about the food or make drastic changes to the menu.  So in the end and in this context maybe the best way we can thank these veterans is by preserving the principles they fought and died for.  That is my plan, but right now we are hopping on our bikes and riding to Arlington to visit J. Gales, Annie, J. Gales Jr., the Major, Nana, Francis and the site where my parents will be interred once far, far into the future my mother joins my father.

[Note: Just to make the above Thanksgiving analogy clear: The “all” represents immigrants which we all are as humans did not evolve on this continent; the “Thanksgiving table” is this country; the cooking, set-up and clean-up are the wars, political debates, hard work and gumption that created and have protected this country; and the quality of our food and the menu are the elements of our political system and the US Constitution. Pushing us further towards an oligarchy (1,2), incorporating Fascist philosophies, gerrymandering districts, suppressing votes, or converting us to a theocracy (1,2, 3) would all be very topical examples of changes to these latter features.]


  1. Thanks for the family history lesson, Bob. I am saddened to reflect upon humanity's apparent belief that war "settles" disputes. Interesting to note that nothing unites a nation more than a common enemy; we just have to figure out how to achieve this unity w/o going to war…

  2. An interesting read. I am so proud to honor your dad at The Citadel muster