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Civil War heirlooms bond families with past

By Nancy Thanki and David Williams, CNN
  • The United States is marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War
  • Heirlooms have inspired many iReporters to dig into their family history
  • Faded letters, other objects give connection to the past

(CNN) -- Sam Lyons' connection to the Civil War came to him last year in a pink gift bag.

The 15-year-old history buff's grandfather gave him a cannon ball from the Battle of Gettysburg that has been in his family for generations as a Christmas present.

"When I first saw it, I was shocked by how amazing it was that I had a little piece of the American Civil War to take home with me," he said. "I was a bit taken aback by the fact that it was in a pink gift bag. I had expressed interest in the subject beforehand to my grandparents, but I could never have expected this."

Lyons said one of his relatives lived near Gettysburg in the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and picked up the cannon ball a few days after the 1863 battle. It's been in their family ever since.

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It's been 150 years since the first shots of the Civil War fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The four-year conflict killed more than 600,000 people and became a pivotal part of American history. CNN asked iReporters to share their families' Civil War heirlooms and to tell the stories behind them. Many said the artifacts gave them a tangible connection to the past and inspired them to look deeper into their families' history.

Denise Griggs started digging into her family's history after asking her Aunt Julie the question, "Who's the white man on the wall?"

She learned that the man in the picture was great-great grandmother's brother Peter Hunt, the son of an Irish slave owner and a slave named America. Hunt joined the United States Colored Troops of the Union Army after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Griggs blended oral history with historic records to write a book on her great-great-great uncle and was even able to find family in Ireland and trace her family history back to the ninth century.

"I'm just bursting with joy because now I know the story. I know the truth."

An apron saved Jan Sarna's ancestors' Arkansas home, according to a story passed down through his family over the years. Sarna's maternal great-great grandfather, William H. Rushing, was serving as a Confederate scout when Union soldiers came to his house to search for food and other provisions for the army. The Rushings were able to hide their cattle and much of their food, but the officer in charge of the troops said he had orders to burn the house down.

Rushing's wife, Catherine, pleaded to save some of their possessions and the officer agreed to let her keep one thing. When she came out of the house with her husband's Masonic apron, the officer recognized the symbols and ordered his men to spare the house.

"The soldiers put out their torches and climbed back onto their horses and into their wagons and left at once. Their home was the only residence in the area left intact, thanks to the 'intervention' of a Masonic apron," Sarna wrote in his iReport.

Charles Thomas' family still owns the land that his great-great grandfather, John Mason Lockerman, farmed before and after the Civil War, but he's still searching for clues about that branch of his family tree. A yellowed and dog-eared document from 1865 is one of Thomas' only links to that part of his history.

As a private in the Confederate Army, Lockerman served as a soldier and a carpenter until he was shot and captured in January, 1865, by the Union troops who stormed Fort Fisher in North Carolina. His arm was amputated at the Point Lookout prison camp in Maryland, where he was held until the end of the war. He was released after taking an Oath of Allegiance to the United States on June 26, 1865.

"The family legend is that he came walking up the road to his house after the war and his wife drew a gun on him because she didn't recognize him," Thomas said.

Lockerman is buried behind the now-empty farm house in Salemburg, North Carolina, and Thomas says recently found more documents that may shed light on his great-great grandfather's life after the war.

"I'm hoping that this interest in history doesn't die down with the younger generation," Thomas said.

"I'm the last one in my family that has really connected with it and I'm wondering what relationship they will have with it."