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Cue the eerie music!

The Legal Genealogist first encountered William W. Montgomery in the statute books of the United States.

MontgomeryWhen I lecture to genealogy groups in different parts of the United States, I make a concerted effort to tailor the presentation — at least in some way — to the specific audience. So as I was preparing to explain this past Saturday to the Dallas Genealogical Society just how knowing the law can make us better genealogists, I looked for Texas examples in the statute books.

And the example I decided to use of a private federal law for the benefit of someone from Texas was set out in volume 17 of the United States Statutes at Large, on page 677. It’s entitled “An Act granting a Pension to Mary Ann Montgomery, Widow of Wm. W. Montgomery, late Captain in Texas Volunteers,” and it simply reads:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Interior be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to place on the pension roll, subject to the provisions and limitations of the pension laws, the name of Mary Ann Montgomery, widow of William W. Montgomery, late captain in Texas volunteers, and to pay her a pension, from the passage of this act, as a captain’s widow, and in respect to her minor children under sixteen years of age.1

Only the Montgomery family benefited from this law, so it’s a good example of a private law: a law passed for the benefit of an individual or family. The other type of statutory law we see is a public law, one passed to affect all of the citizens in general. An example of that would be a law creating a new tax everyone had to pay or one creating a military draft affecting all men of a certain age.

This bill has also got a nice quirk to it: it was originally vetoed by President Grant because its language wasn’t clear, and it was passed over the Presidential veto. Mrs. Montgomery got her pension.

It also turns out that there’s a fascinating backstory to the Montgomery case, and some interesting documents you can find online about it. One of them is a resolution of the Texas Legislature, asking the Congress to pass that pension law. Adopted 22 January 1872, it reads:

Whereas William W. Montgomery, a citizen of the county of Caldwell and State of Texas, on the breaking out of the rebellion was, through fear of violence on account of his loyalty to the Government of the United States, forced to leave his home and take refuge within the Federal lines; and

Whereas the said William W. Montgomery afterward volunteered in the service of the United States, and was appointed captain of Company -—, in the First Regiment of Texas Cavalry; and

Whereas the said William W. Montgomery afterward, to wit, on or about the 15th day of March, A. D. 1863, while a captain in the said First Regiment of Texas Cavalry, then in the service of the United States, and while in the line of duty, was, by a band of rebels, styling themselves confederate soldiers, captured and hung; and

Whereas the said William W. Montgomery left a widow, to wit, Mary Ann Montgomery, whose maiden name was Mary Ann McKay, who is still alive and a citizen of said Caldwell County, and has remained a widow ever since the death of her said husband, William W. Montgomery; and

Whereas the said William W. Montgomery, at the time of his death, had six children under the age of sixteen years, the dates of whose births are as follows, to wit: Francis Marion, September 12, 1847; Edward L., December 19, 1851; John Wesley, January 24, 1854; Mary Ann, April 17, 1856; Martha E., August 19, 1858; and Harriet S., March 3, 1861: Therefore,

Be it resolved by the Legislature of the State of Texas, That the Congress of the United States is earnestly petitioned to enact such measures as may be necessary to enable the said Mary Ann Montgomery and her said minor children to avail themselves of an act of Congress approved July 14, 1862, and to obtain the pension provided for in said act.2

The story gets even better. You can read through the records of both the Confederate and Union Armies, until you finally come across the eyewitness accounts of Montgomery’s death. Richard Pendergrast said “he witnessed … the murder of Capt. William W. Montgomery by a band of armed men…. The murder of said Montgomery was effected by hanging him by the neck with a rope to a mesquite tree. Deponent saw the said Montgomery captured or kidnapped on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande on the morning of the day that he was murdered by the persons who hung him, together with others. Deponent saw the body of said Montgomery still hanging to the mesquite tree four days after the murder.”3

There are some reference books available to go deeper into the Montgomery story. Dean W. Holt’s American Military Cemeteries sets out the tale of the raid by Confederates to capture and immediately hang the Union officers they regarded as traitors.4 The whole story of the Union regiment in which Montgomery served is detailed in Stanley S. McGowen’s Horse Sweat and Powder Smoke: The First Texas Cavalry in the Civil War.5

But if you want the whole story, go to Dallas. Attend a meeting or two of the Dallas Genealogical Society. Get to know one of its members, Suzan Younger, who served as my official meeter-greeter-driver-escort-and-tour-guide-par-excellence this past weekend.

She can tell you all about William W. Montgomery. How the law itself was because Montgomery was officially carried on the books as a private rather than as a captain because of bureaucratic issues. How the purpose of the law was to give his widow and children the benefit of his actual rank as a captain.

But she can tell you more.

She can tell you how he came to be a Union loyalist during the Civil War. How he ended up enlisting in the First Texas Cavalry. How he was captured, hung, cut down and buried by locals. How his body was dug up by the Confederates and hung back on that mesquite tree — the desire to give a warning against Union service was powerfully strong. How his body was cut down a second time and buried again. How his body was eventually moved to the Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Rapides Parish, Louisiana.

And she can tell you how powerfully that story affected the Montgomery family and its descendants.

Right down to today.

Including — you guessed it — Suzan Younger herself.

Now what are the odds that of all the statutes I might have picked as an example I’d just happen to pick the one where a genealogist-descendant would be in the room to provide the rest of the story?

And how cool is that?


  1. “An Act granting a Pension to Mary Ann Montgomery, Widow of Wm. W. Montgomery, late Captain in Texas Volunteers,” 17 Stat. 677 (7 June 1872); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 28 Sep 2014).
  2. “Joint Resolution of the Legislature of Texas…,” House Misc. Doc. No. 43, 42nd Congress, 2d Session, The Miscellaneous Documents Printed by Order of the House of Representatives, … 1871-’72, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 2: 43; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2014). Note: John Wesley’s birth year was originally posted as “185i” and has been corrected, thanks to a reader’s eagle eye.
  3. Affidavit of Richard Pendergrast, 11 Dec 1863, in The Miscellaneous Documents Printed by Order of the House of Representatives, … 1889-90, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891), U.S. Congressional Serial Set 2769: 867-858; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2014).
  4. Dean W. Holt, American Military Cemeteries, 2d ed. (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., 2010).
  5. Stanley S. McGowen, Horse Sweat and Powder Smoke: The First Texas Cavalry in the Civil War (College Station, Tex. : Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1999).
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