Roots Traced To Civil War

First Person

John Gourdin

August 07, 2005

In my hometown of Andrews, S.C., my family name was fairly common, so I paid little attention to it. However, after joining the Marine Corps in 1964, I soon learned that my name was not so common after all; I noticed that I had not met anyone else who shared my family name.

Of course, this led me to wonder about my name and my ancestry. This curiosity launched me on a 30-year journey to find my roots. No matter where I traveled with the Marines I collected and cataloged the names of everyone I came across who shared my family name.

Each time I visited a new city, I would check the telephone book to see if there were any Gourdins or Gourdines listed. Whenever I found one, I would call them, introduce myself and discuss our family history.

It was absolutely amazing how these virtual strangers accepted and responded to my barrage of questions and some even welcomed me into their homes. During all those years of research, almost without exception, I was able to trace the ancestry of each individual or family to South Carolina. Quite often, I actually identified a link between their families and mine going back more than 100 years.

I was spellbound by these discoveries, especially when I learned that my surname originated with the French Huguenots (French Protestants) who settled in South Carolina during the late 1600s. So after I retired from the Marine Corps in 1984, I was able to focus more of my time and attention to my research.

As a result, I was able to compile and publish my family genealogy and history in 1995 covering the period of 1830 to 1994, which included more than 2,500 members of the French-African-American family line. Additionally, during my research of the Civil War military records, I discovered that 13 Gourdins (various spellings) served in the Union Army in the 104th Colored Infantry Regiment organized in South Carolina.

I further discovered that I was a descendant of Peter Alston, who was one of the soldiers who served with the 104th regiment. During the war, he served under the name of Peter Gourdine, the surname taken from his former owner, Theodore Louis Gourdin, but after the war he changed his surname to Alston. Name changing was a common practice of veteran soldiers in the South generally as a means of divesting themselves of their slave names.

After discovering my lineage from a veteran soldier, my interest in the Civil War intensified. I wanted to learn more about those brave black men who fought and, in some cases, died to bring freedom to more than 4 million men, women and children who lived in slavery. As my friends learned of my particular interest, they told me that re-enacting was an excellent means of learning more about the Civil War.

Taking my friends' advice, I joined the Washington-based 54th Massachusetts, Company B re-enactor regiment after seeing them on the evening news serving as honor guards at the National Archives. This was a wise decision because their knowledge of the roles of black soldiers in the Civil War is astonishing.

Over the past seven to eight years, thanks to God's good graces and my wife's tolerance, I have participated in countless re-enactments, parades, conferences and living-history presentations and have traveled to practically every state along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Massachusetts. I'm also thankful for the opportunity to pass on to the public what was so freely given to me by my fellow re-enactors.

Presently, I spend most of my free time participating in Civil War conferences, making living-history presentations to students and community groups, teaching genealogy research, and researching Civil War service and pension records to help others make a connection with their Civil War veteran history.

John Gourdin, 58, of Severn is a Civil War re-enactor. To learn about Civil War re-enacting, contact Gourdin at Jgourdin@comcast.net.

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