Captain Henry Mingay: A search for the truth
by Tom Gilfoy
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 Voice of the Village
Up until a few years ago I thought Samuel Clemens, known more popularly as Mark Twain, was a family relative. Throughout my childhood my mother frequently told me this was the case and the belief was reinforced by information in old family letters, one of which referred to my great grandfather as having been named Samuel Clemens Gilfoy “after his relative Mark Twain.” No one seemed to know just exactly what the relationship might be, but we all took a certain amount of pride in just being able to say we thought we were related.
In old age, curiosity finally got the best of me, and I recently researched the relationship. Unfortunately, in the process I uncovered nearly incontrovertible evidence establishing that there was no relationship whatsoever between my family and the great writer. What a disappointment. No longer could I honestly say I thought I was related even if I didn’t quite know how. It was deflating, and in a way I wished I’d never done the research. As we shall see, this experience was not too different from what happened when I researched the legendary life of Civil War veteran and former Tujunga and Glendale resident, Captain Henry M. Mingay.
Captain Mingay was one of the last surviving veterans of the Civil War. Every year close to Memorial Day, he made the rounds of the local schools throughout the Burbank, Glendale and Sunland-Tujunga areas, where he would make a short patriotic speech extolling veterans of wars past, paying particular homage to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the Civil War.
Some of the old newspaper accounts refer to Mingay as a hero, indicating he entered the Union Army “immediately after” Ft. Sumter was fired on to start the war. He then was reported to have participated in all the major battles fought by New York’s famous Irish Brigade. He became so popular from his school visits, and was generally held in such high esteem, that in 1946 the Burbank School District named a new school after him, The Henry M. Mingay Elementary School.
I well recall what a big deal it was when Mingay came to Sunland Grammar School. Even though the school at the that time had no auditorium, it did have a so-called multi purpose room that had to be converted for assemblies so that the whole student body could fit inside.
The conversion, although I’m sure a real pain in the rear for staff, was nothing but fun for the kids, thanks mainly to Kenny Waldrip, the school’s enterprising young janitor. (Yes, that’s the same person referred to in last month’s story.)
Always a favorite with the kids, Kenny put together a group of volunteer students he called “Kenny’s boys,” whose job it was to help him convert the room for assemblies. The job wasn’t easy either –– among other things, all the chairs were kept in storage under the stage and had to be rolled out and set up chair by chair. But Kenny told “his boys” it was fun to do and we believed him. Not only that, but he made it an honor to help him –– good marks in citizenship on your report card were required before you were eligible. Any kid worth his salt wanted to do his best for good ol’ Kenny. (Of course, when I think back on it now, I realize there was more than a hint of Tom Sawyer ‘getting that white picket fence painted’ to Kenny’s approach.)
When the big day for Captain Mingay arrived, all the kids lined up by class and, to the strains of a John Philip Sousa march, we paraded double file over to sit at the Mingay assembly. This long after I can’t honestly say I remember a single word the good Captain said, but I do remember participating when we were allowed to line up afterwards and shake his hand. And what a frail, bony old hand it was too –– I mean, how could it have been otherwise with the old guy closing in fast on a hundred years of age. Fast forward now to about 65 years later when, in 2011, some of us were asked to participate in a Memorial Day event jointly sponsored by Sunland-Tujunga’s Little Landers Society and the Crescenta Valley Historical Society. The event was primarily to honor 10 Civil War veterans who used to live locally. I was to be one of 10 local citizens paying tribute to the veterans by taking turns in reading aloud each veteran’s biography. In a real coincidence, I was asked to read the biography of none other than Captain Henry M. Mingay. I hadn’t thought much about him since school days, but this experience rekindled an interest in his life. Once again, as with my family’s relationship to Twain, I couldn’t leave well enough alone and began researching the old gentleman’s service record. Although I had not set out to prove anything, I’m sorry to say I found out that much of what had previously been reported about him was untrue.
For one thing, military records do not show that Mingay joined the Army “immediately after” the Civil War started in 1861. To the contrary, they establish that he joined three years later in August of 1864, which was only eight months before the war ended. Obviously, there was no way he could have participated in all battles fought by the Irish Brigade throughout the whole war. For another, there is no record he ever served as a captain or, for that matter, as any other kind of an officer. Instead, military records indicate that two months after the war ended he was mustered out as a private. There is, however, an indication that at one point in his career he temporarily held the rank of sergeant.
So why did Mingay call himself Captain Mingay, and where did all the reports of his heroism during his brief 10-month military career come from? I found many of these questions unanswerable and can only speculate that most of the information printed and spoken of him must have come from Mingay himself. Or, possibly he never corrected others who started praising him for things that he had not done. The question of the captaincy rank is particularly intriguing. One newspaper account states that Mingay became a Captain when he re-enlisted after the war ended. But no record of this could be found and, indeed, it seems extremely unlikely. After all, at the end of the war the Army shrank from over a million soldiers to less than 50,000, and over the course of the next 10 years that number dropped to 25,000.
Opportunities to re-enlist just weren’t being provided, let alone an opportunity for someone discharged as a private to advance to the rank of captain while most other officers were either being downgraded or forced out of the Army altogether.’
Another possibility is that Mingay used the rank of Captain because that was his rank in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization of Civil War veterans whose members wore uniforms and bore rank much the same as though they were in the real Army. But, the possibility of this being true is diminished by pictures of Mingay in full GAR uniform, which show no bars on his shoulders. Moreover, the rank of captain does not appear to have been a rank authorized by GAR’s charter. Just seeing Mingay in his medal-bedecked GAR uniform may, however, be the source of people thinking he was a hero, even though close examination of each medal reveals that none were awarded for heroism; they all were awarded for post war service to GAR. From the foregoing it’s pretty hard not to conclude that good ol’ Cap’t Mingay pulled the wool over a lot of peoples eyes. Indeed, in prior stories written about him for the Little Landers Historical Society, I ended the story at this point, which hardly provided an opportunity to reach any other conclusion. More recently, however, it occurred to me that I had overlooked the possibility of Mingay having joined a National Guard unit somewhere and that this may have been where he became a Captain. And sure enough, further research showed that this was in fact the case. According to an annual report of the New York Adjutant General’s Office, in 1886 a Henry M. Mingay retired from the New York National Guard with the rank of Captain.
I consider this discovery to be a lesson learned: just because you can’t find evidence substantiating something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And as for the other inconsistencies between the record and the stories told, I for one, will reach no conclusion, if for no other reason than no one knows how easily the good Captain himself might satisfactorily answer every apparent inconsistency if given the opportunity.
In all events, and in view of all of the above, it is perhaps appropriate that this essay end on one final note of inconsistency: to wit, Mingay’s burial records at Grandview Cemetery in Glendale identify him as Sergeant Mingay, and yet plainly carved on his headstone is “Captain Henry Mingay.”
Contact Tom Gilfoy at: email@example.com