Reid Ross set out in the 1970s to answer some questions about his family tree and find some interesting characters.
His plan didn't include spending three decades to visit 150 libraries, travel across the country and author a 450-page book. Yet, all that has come to pass.
The 86-year-old Durangoan, known by many in La Plata County as a champion of low-income housing, is currently publicizing his recently released book, Lincoln's Veteran Volunteers Win the War. It's a Civil War account of the men who re-enlisted in the Union army, with a focus on Ross's grandfather and three great-uncles.
So what's more impressive?
Ross spending 30-plus years digging into soldiers' letters and diaries, visiting libraries and battlegrounds, and poring over historical documents as far away as Maine?
Or, the depravations and dangers that Civil War troops faced (for example, the 36th Illinois regiment that included great-uncle Lank Ross had a casualty rate of 54 percent)?
Ross, an urban planner by trade, always had a keen curiosity about history. So he studied his ancestors' lives to answer nagging questions: Why did they come from Europe? Who fought in which wars?
He latched on to his father's side of the family, which settled in New York's Hudson Valley. His grandfather, Dan Ross, died in 1924 when Reid was 2.
The Rosses were Scottish Presbyterians whose church's covenant with God said slavery was a sin. So the Rosses had two motivations when they enlisted in Lincoln's army, one of which was simply to save a country for which their forefathers had struggled. And, Ross says during an interview at his home late last month, "This was their opportunity to help end slavery.
"And those twin goals gave them a real moral compass, and the moral courage to fight that war until it ended or until they became casualties."
The Civil War lasted from April 1861 to April 1865. Somewhere around 2.5 million soldiers served in the Union army, and only about 200,000 of those re-enlisted, according to Ross. Those were war-tested, savvy veterans crucial to the Union's success. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman fretted that in 1864, when many veteran soldiers' three-year terms were ending, they'd be left with green troops easily defeated.
So, Ross says, the veteran volunteers were a boon.
Dan's brothers, Will and Lank, were veteran volunteers, and although Dan re-enlisted, he technically was not. He served a short stint with the cavalry before being discharged in March 1862, then re-enlisted a few months later. A fourth Ross brother, John, joined the Union near war's end at age 18.
"The fact of the matter is I never intended to write this book," Ross says. After researching his own family's involvement, it dawned on him that he had new material - the story of the veteran volunteers hasn't been dissected and overwritten, as have many aspects of the Civil War.
So he searched for other veteran volunteers, seeking their letters and memoirs in libraries and historical society archives. Some he found west of the Missouri River, others in little towns in Tennessee and Georgia.
That was "the most painstaking and time-consuming of all the research effort. Really it took me close to 30 years to find that material," Ross says. The mass of material was overwhelming, and Fort Lewis College history professor and author Duane Smith was among those who helped Ross focus and get the book down to a reasonable size.
"It was indeed a labor of love," says Smith, who wrote the foreword for Ross's book. "You always hear people talking about that, but it was."
Ross was amazed at the soldiers' accounts, and his curiosity carried him along.
He visited every battleground where any of the four brothers fought, climbing up the same steep ridges, stepping into the same swamps and tripping over the same vines. But it was the letters - the soldiers' day-by-day accounts of marches and thoughts about the war, that told the story.
"When you put all those letters together you really do get a mosaic of what life was like for those soldiers," he says. "That's what I wanted to do - I wanted to see that war through the soldiers' eyes, not through the generals' eyes."
He learned of bloody battles and myriad mishaps that led to 600,000 Union and Confederate deaths. Says Ross: "1864 was the most terrible year of the war from any perspective, and it's documented by what happened to the Ross family."
In April of that year, Lank was blinded, ironically by a train cinder. In May, Will died of a gunshot wound at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. In June, Dan was captured during a battle in Georgia; he spent time at the notoriously crowded and deadly Andersonville prison camp. In the late summer, the brothers' parents' crops were wiped out by drought and a hailstorm. Despite dire conditions on the family farm, John enlisted in September, and in December he was permanently deafened when a cannonball exploded over his head at the siege of Savannah.
It's interesting what a person can find out about his family, and it can amaze others as much as it does the researcher, Ross says. In his case, it was a grandfather and three great-uncles who made great sacrifices and helped save the union.
"The reward is to realize the significance of their contribution to American history. I don't think that war could have been won, at least in the four years it took to win it, without those veteran volunteers."
email@example.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.