TRAVERSE CITY — Many people can trace their ancestry back at least a few generations. David Smith can trace his even farther — to the 1860s.
Several of his family members fought for the Union during the Civil War.
These connections qualified him for membership in the Robert Finch Camp No. 14, a nonprofit based in Traverse City that falls under the national organization Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“I joined under an uncle,” Smith said. “I was compelled by his military records, letters, etc. I belong to many historical organizations, but this one — I’m repeating a lot of the same words as my great-great grandfathers. There’s a direct tie back to my own ancestors.”
Smith, current camp secretary and past commander, said the camp was founded in 1914, making it the oldest active camp in the Department of Michigan. It is also the largest in the state. Smith added that the hub moved from Grand Rapids to Traverse City in the 1980s.
Their jurisdiction includes about 19 counties, but Smith said members come from all over the world — including Korea and England. Current membership is 40 or 50 people, though they approached 55 a couple years ago.
“We’re probably close to the top three for size in the state,” he said. “These organizations are dying; membership is getting older and older. I’m a middle-aged man, but I’m considered a baby. Two years ago we lost our last World War II veteran. We have a lot of Vietnam veterans right now.”
Though Smith is considered a hereditary member, he said others can join as associates — meaning they do not have or do not yet know their connection to a Civil War soldier. Smith said camp members help research, and if a link is found, an individual can turn in the documents and change membership status.
“We dig them up, so to speak,” Smith said. “You need to know your family tree, but don’t need all genealogical proofs for each generation. You just need to show an ancestor who was honorably discharged after serving.”
Calvin Murphy, of Bear Lake, learned about the Robert Finch Camp a few years ago. He said both his African American and Caucasian ancestors fought in the Civil War and he was in combat during the Vietnam War.
“It’s interesting history,” Murphy said. “I’m proud to say I’ve had a relative who’s been in every conflict from the Revolutionary War to the present.”
Murphy said genealogical studies are becoming more common and popular today. He used Ancestry.com to find his Civil War connections and encourages others to do the same.
“It’s getting in there and finding out where you come from,” he said. “You see the contributions to the country. It’s a proud history.”
He added that he enjoys the camp’s dedication to preserving that history.
Camp projects include maintaining monuments and flagpoles, grave dedications, cleaning and repairing headstones and collaborating with related groups like the Gold Star Mothers and Frances Finch Auxiliary No. 9.
Robert Finch Camp No. 14 members recently conducted a traditional military ceremony at Maple Hill Cemetery in Cadillac. Smith said the event included posting the colors and a rifle volley at the Grand Army of the Republic plot.
“We knew what it was, but no one else knew the significance,” Smith said of the plot. “We felt it was time — we decided on a historical sign.”
The work falls under the group’s three main principles: fraternity, charity and loyalty. Smith said this means providing patriotic instruction, getting pensions for veterans and assisting widows and children.
Robert Finch Camp No. 14 members plan to travel to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. on Nov. 6. They will participate in an interment ceremony for Richard Rizzio, the last World War II veteran in the Battle of the Bulge from northern Michigan.
The next meeting is private, as they are conducting officer elections. Smith said most other meetings are open to everyone who is interested in history and learning more about their past.
“You’re joining because it’s good camaraderie,” he said. “It takes your time, but it’s a good cause. It’s all what you make it. We’re happy to have you either way.”