13. In Memoriam: Pvt. Michael McClain

Except for limited notes at the end, all references and additional information on the persons in this entry are given in two volumes. The first is The Omnibus Ancestry (referenced as OA). It updates and corrects, in brief form, a number of works including the more detailed volume, Barth-Hickey Ancestry (referenced as BH). Both are available for download through Lulu.com.

A number of ancestors on both the Barth and Boles sides of the family have served their nation since its founding. My wife’s father, as well as my own, emerged unscathed from the Navy after World War II. However, two of my wife’s uncles suffered serious injury in that war. Lt. Paul Hickey received a head wound in the days following the Normandy invasion. His brother, Technical Sgt. George Hickey, lost both legs to a German bazooka. George had served in the Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe campaigns, and received a Bronze Star for having voluntarily left cover under heavy machine gun fire to retrieve a wounded comrade [BH].

As far as is known, however, only one direct ancestor on either side of the family actually died in service in the long period from the Revolutionary War down to the present. He was my wife’s ancestor Michael McClain, a private in Co. B, 80th Infantry Illinois Volunteers, during the Civil War [OA,BH].


Michael McClain was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1822 or 1823. However, in 1844 he was in St. Louis, Missouri, when he married his wife Sarah Jane Brownlee. The couple moved to nearby Macoupin county, Illinois, where Michael was listed as a farmer at the time of the 1850 census. Later that year they moved to Alton, Madison county, Illinois, still close to St. Louis [OA].

In August 1862, Michael was a resident of Upper Alton when he enlisted. A description of him stated: “Michael McLain Co. B 80 Regt Illinois Infantry. Age 39 years; height 5 feet 4 inches. Complexion – dark, eyes-gray; hair – brown, Where born – Detroit, Michigan, occupation – farmer”. Enlisting from the same place, on the same date, and in the same company was John B.W. Brownlee, a brother-in-law [OA, BH].


Absent direct statements by the soldier himself, it is often hard to give details of battle service during the Civil War, for military records generally don’t specify it in the case of individuals. However, regimental histories are known, and from these reasonable inferences can be made as to a soldier’s service.

The 80th Regiment was organized in August 1862 under Col. T.G. Allen. Michael McClain and John B.W. Brownlee joined at its inception. On October 1st, the regiment fought in the battle of Perryville in Kentucky under Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell. Following a number of marches and skirmishes, the regiment defeated an enemy force at Blunt’s farm in May 1863, but was surrendered the following day to a greatly superior force under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It was taken in coal cars to Atlanta, following which the officers were sent to Libby prison. The other men, presumably including Pvts. McClain and Brownlee, were exchanged and resumed an active role in the war in late June, at Nashville, Tennessee. Following several marches, in October the regiment was present at the battle of Wauhatchie on the Tennessee-Georgia border, and engaged in the battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November [OA, BH].

The regiment commenced the Atlanta campaign in May 1864, and participated in the successive battles of Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, Cassville, Dallas, Pine Mountain, Kenesaw Mountain, Marietta, Peach Tree Creek, Atlanta, Jonesboro, and Lovejoy Station. It was during this phase of the war, during the battle at Dallas, that Michael McClain received mortal wounds. The remainder of the regiment, presumably including John B.W. Brownlee, marched through Alabama before falling back to Nashville, where it was in battle in December. Its remaining movements were in Alabama and Tennessee. It was mustered out of service in June 1865, having travelled in all 6,000 miles and having been in more than 20 battles [OA, BH].

It was on May 27th, 1864, that Michael McClain received battle wounds at Dallas, Paulding co, Georgia, during only the second day of a 10-day engagement that resulted in 2400 Union casualties. He thus had been part of the Atlanta campaign and of General Sherman’s army advancing on that city. He was severely wounded in his right leg, which was amputated. Most likely gangrene set in, and he died on June 1st [1, 2]. His burial site is unknown.


Michael left behind a 35-year-old widoMcClain, Theodore hatw and six children [BH]. Soon after the war Sarah Jane Brownlee McClain removed with her children to Decatur, Macon county, Illinois. In 1873 she remarried to George W. Burton, alias Burke, a Mexican War veteran. As Sarah J. Burton, she applied in 1902 to have a pension reinstated that had been based on her first husband’s service, the second husband having since died [OA, BH].

Sarah Jane was remembered with affection by her grandchildren, one of whom described her as “a feisty, smart, little lady although comical” [3]. Multiple memories were of a “little clay pipe” she habitually used. One grandchild related that her mother would walk past their house rather than go in, if she was walking with a beau and “Grandma Burton” was out smoking on the porch [3, OA, BH].

The only son of Michael and Sarah Jane McClain was Theodore McClain (1853-1921). He was long a barber on North Water St., Decatur [4, BH]. All five daughters married at least once in Macon county, including my wife’s great-great-grandmother, Josephine McClain Gullett [OA, BH].

In my wife’s family at least, any knowledge of Civil War ancestor Michael McClain was lost to the generations — that is, until application of The Genealogist’s Craft.


[1] Information retrieved from http://bgill1963.tripod.com/id33.html (2015). This site gives details of Michael’s death that correct and extend those given in OA and BH.

[2] Information retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dallas (2015).

[3] Information retrieved from https://familysearch.org/photos/stories/6553567 (2015).

Picture attribution: Public domain.

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