top of page

Family Legend in History: The Case of Michael Gabbard, 8th Kentucky Infantry

Part of the challenge of the subject of history, perhaps even more so in the specific area of genealogy, is separating fact from fiction, truth from myth, reality from fantasy, and though that may be sometimes impossible – not everybody defines “truth” in the same way - the process of doing so is important.

This story began as an exploration of a Civil War soldier named Michael Gabbard, a man who supposedly served on the honor guard for Abraham Lincoln’s body from Chicago to Springfield. A cousin told me of this story and gave me some paperwork about it, including a typed autobiographical sketch of his wife, Mary Ann. That paper appeared to be something I did not need, but I looked over it and realized that it was more valuable than I had expected; it does mention the war and discusses her relationship with Michael. It provides insight into life in that era, including immigration, how a relationship developed into marriage, family loyalty, gender relations, race relations, and even teenage rebellion. This is a story about a Civil War soldier, but also the tale of nineteenth century American life as well as historical memory.

(For anyone wanting details of Mary Ann’s life not included here, a full copy of her memoir is here.)

I attempted to correct most spelling and grammatical errors in the lines I transcribed, but intentionally left a few mistakes which added authenticity to this tale, reading how I imagined she may have spoken. I have also added a few details to her words.

Mary Ann Mangan was born March 25, 1848 in Ireland. In her youth, she lived in both Ireland and England, before sailing to the United States in 1858, landing in New York.

Here “we exchanged our British money for U.S. money. I saw the first Negro I ever saw in New York. Her family traveled to Milwaukee. “There I saw my first watermelons, cucumbers, and squashes. There I saw the first ear of corn. I didn’t know whether it was handmade or natural.”

They moved to Illinois.

“While living in Peru (Illinois), I attended church and Sunday school regularly… In the spring of sixty-one, while on my way to school, I was told the South had seceded and war was inevitable. War was the topic of the day. The war cloud was darkening the northern horizon and the valiant sons of the North were preparing to rush to the awful encounter.

I quit school, went home, and went to clerk in a store in my hometown…

I was living in Chicago and, with a friend, went to visit the great Senator Douglas’ grave on the bank of Lake Michigan. There was a picnic on the grounds. There were swings. I got into one and my friend was going to swing me when a young man stepped up and said: I’ll swing you if you wish me to. I let him move the swing a short time. Then I said Please stop the swing. He done as I requested. I thanked him and went walking off. It was time to go home. When I was getting to the streetcar, my acquaintance of the swing was at the car door and asked me if I enjoyed myself. Yes, I answered in a happy, joyous way. My friend who was with me was an old lady and she requested the name of the young man who swang me and had been so nice to her. He gave her his name and address. He promised to get a pass for the lady to go inside of Camp Douglas. The law of the camp was ‘No citizen allowed inside,’ unless some friend was a soldier and on duty there. The young man’s name was Michael Gabbard, Co. G 7th Regt., V.R.C. Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill. (Note: He was actually in company G of the 8th Regiment of the VRC) He got my address, and I hadn’t been at home but two days when I got a letter from said Michael. And what began in an indifferent acquaintance ended in marriage. I had not been long acquainted with Mike Gabbard when he asked me to marry him. I was not thinking of such a thing. I was young and told him I didn’t want to marry. He was persistent. I went home. Mike wrote to Mother while I was at home, asking her consent. She was furious. She made life so hard for me. I went to my southern friend with my trouble and of course she was for her Southern friend. She persuaded me to leave home and marry him, which I did. If Mother hadn’t been so harsh to me, I wouldn’t have left home and married a strange man. Mother never forgave my Southern friend for what she done in the matter. After I was married and with Mike in Chicago, mother wrote to me to come home and stay with her until Mike got his discharge as Mike could not get a house to move into as the houses in camp were all occupied. Mike consented for me to go. I was but a short time at home when he got a pass for twelve hours, which he lengthened to eight days. When he went back to camp, he was put in the guardhouse four days. It was Christmas time and he had lots of company in the guardhouse…

Mike was at this time waiting for a house to become vacant. At last, the happy time arrived. He notified me to come. He had a house…

Mother hated to see me go very much and I hated to leave her and my good old stepfather…I went to housekeeping in Camp Douglas, Chicago. I liked to keep house very much. There was three young men, soldiers, of Mike’s company, (who) boarded with us. We enjoyed their company very much. One was a New Yorker, one was an Indianan, and one was a Canadian. They were cultured gentlemen, and we enjoyed their company very much. (Let me say here, your Father was well liked by all his comrades.) In the latter part of sixty-five, the war was over. The prisoners were all discharged and gone home. And the soldiers wanted to be discharged also. They had enough of war, such a cruel war. They wanted to follow their peaceful avocations of life.

Mike got his discharge from service at Chicago, Ill. Your Father received two honorable discharges. We left Chicago in the latter part of Nov. 1865, arrived on Lexington, Ky… took the stage to Irvine, Ky. We arrived in Irvine on Sunday evening, the landlady was not at home when we arrived at the Iiamson (sic) House, our hostess being a colored lady. She took charge of my things, waiting on me very politely, in the meantime plying me with questions. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her I was from the North, she asked me if she was free. I told her “yes! You’re as free as I am.” She gave me an earnest look, threw her arms up over her head and shouted “Thank you Lord. I’ll just stay with them through Christmas.” Her mistress had told her she was not free in order to get her work. She was a good cook, and her place couldn’t easily be filled. The landlady got very angry at me for telling her black woman she was free. I had no apology to make to the landlady.”

She shares more details of her life before concluding:

“Married at Chicago on September 15th - 1864

Michael Gabbard of Booneville Ky to Mary A Mangan of Henry, Illinois.

The marriage was performed by a Justice of the Peace…It was not a happy marriage with me, but I remained true to my obligations as a wife and as a mother. I done the best I could for my children, whom I dearly loved.”

A family history site calls Michael “Drunk Mike,” perhaps pointing to a cause of Mary Ann’s dissatisfaction. Maybe he experienced what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, especially since he had been injured, or at least sick, during the war.


Michael Gabbard was born on April 30, 1837, the son of Isaac Hugh and Jane (Isaacs) Gabbard. He had enlisted as a private in Company D of the 8th Kentucky Infantry, in Owsley County, Kentucky on September 24, 1861 for a three-year term.

A newspaper article entitled It Happened Here (Jackson County Recorder, McKee, Ky., 1979) recaps Michael's military career: "your great grandpa, Mike Gabbard, was wounded at Look Out (sic) Mountain during the Civil War. His entire kneecap was blown away. He used a cane, and later a crutch too. The wound never healed."

Unfortunately, these lines are not true. The Battle of Lookout Mountain took place on November 24, 1863, but he had transferred to the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC) more than three months earlier, on August 5, after being listed sick for several months on muster rolls.

How the report of an injury at Lookout Mountain came into being may be lost to history but the article may explain it: “Nell wrote down... a lengthy family history from their oral tradition.” Nell was a granddaughter of Michael and Mary Ann.

Since the story came from oral history, failing (or biased) memories probably created a tale different than official records show.

This same newspaper article also mentions Michael’s service in Lincoln’s Honor Guard:

“It is one of my hobbies to look for common everyday events that are linked to history. Today I discovered one that links the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, April 14, 1865, to the fact that when our members or visitors come into the Co-op office, the first person they usually our receptionist...Mrs. Marjorie Mullins, an Owsley County McIntosh. Her mother was a Gabbard.“

The article notes Michael’s supposed wound, then:

“He was sent to a prison at Rock Island, Illinois to guard the southern prisoners. While (Michael was) here, President Lincoln was killed. The body was brought to Chicago. Grandpa was chosen as one of the honor guards to accompany the body from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois and help bury it.”

This intrigued me greatly, but also came across as almost too good to be true. Did I really have a story about Michael - perhaps a very distant relative to my family - doing something as important as being on Abraham Lincoln’s honor guard? This clearly deserved more research.

As I searched for verification of this claim, I found other mentions of it online, first on “Michael was a member of the honor guard that accompanied Abraham Lincoln’s body by rail from Chicago to Springfield Illinois for burial. All information from the Gabbard family Newsletter. Article by John Gabbard June 1995.”

I also found this story and genealogical information on a family/military history site. The key section indicates:

“Private Michael 'Drunk Mike' Gabbard was chosen to escort President Abraham Lincoln's funeral train from Chicago to Springfield, IL.

Michael and his 8 brothers served within the 8th KY INF.”

This next site repeats a similar version. I suspect each shared a common source, but here are the relevant lines from this site:

"Four of the sons of Isaac and Jane were in the Union Army during the Civil War: George W., James, Jacob, and Michael. James was killed in the battle of Lookout Mountain; Michael was wounded in the same battle. Michael was an Honor Guard for Abraham Lincoln's body when it was transported by rail from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois. [Actually 5 sons served - Abel served, too, because he applied for his pension.]"

(A quick search indicates that George and Jacob were in the 47th Kentucky Infantry and that Abel joined Michael in the 8th Kentucky. James, however, died in 1859, before the war even began Still, a family having four brothers in the war remains quite noteworthy.)

One curiosity about this is the absence of this story in his wife’s autobiography. She wrote it around 1913, so could she have forgotten this detail from decades earlier?

Another possibility is that the unhappy marriage may have discouraged her from praising him, but she made other positive comments about him, so her intentionally omitting the honor guard seems improbable. Her story does not read as though she was bitter, nor that she intended to discredit him. It makes no mention of his supposed fondness for the bottle and only includes one line about unhappiness.

If her husband had indeed been part of that honor guard, that would have been a unique and memorable part of his life, but maybe it was not important to her. Otherwise, did she not believe he was on the honor guard? Did she not know of that story? Perhaps he was not truly part of that unit? If so, where did the story come from?

Of course, her own story also mentions nothing of his alleged wound, even as he pushed her on a swing. A man with a blown away kneecap might not be able to do such a physical activity, or the wound would at least be noticeable, if as severe as it supposedly was. Additionally, would a man with a “blown away” kneecap have been able to participate in Lincoln’s honor guard? Does her failure to mention the honor guard and the blown away kneecap simply create more skepticism about the newspaper report? Perhaps he suffered a post-war knee injury that required him to use a cane.

I researched this story online, using terms like “Lincoln’s honor guard,” “Lincoln honor guard Chicago,” “Gabbard, Lincoln honor guard,” and similar phrases. I did find some helpful information.

One website states: states: “Biographer and friend Isaac N. Arnold wrote: Non-commissioned officers of the Veteran Reserve Corps were detailed to act as a body-guard, and major generals of the army were directed to attend the train and keep watch, so that at all times during the journey the coffin should be under their special guardianship.”

Michael was in the VRC, but was a private, not a non-commissioned officer.

Another site provides a list of individual names on the honor guard. Michael is not on that list, nor is any member of the 8th VRC.

I did find an image of the program from the public viewing of Lincoln’s body in Chicago, and the website’s description caught my attention: “This program for the Chicago funeral includes the names of pall bearers, a mounted honor guard, and general processors”. Unfortunately, the list is not legible, even when I save and enlarge it. I am not sure Michael would have been on a mounted honor guard, but I would like to see those names anyway.

No source I found listed Michael Gabbard as part of the honor guard, other than family history websites and the newspaper article. It appears probable were all been based on family oral history as the article mentioned.

This contrast between family history and official records leaves me with a few theories as to how the creation of this family legend:

1. Michael witnessed the transportation of Lincoln’s body and later described it to someone who shared the story. Over time and many retellings, the story evolved to include Michael as part of the honor guard, not just a witness to it.

2. He did view the honor guard, but as time passed and his memory faded, he unintentionally and honestly started believing he was part of that guard. He lived until 1902, and memories do fail over time. Maybe it was “wishful thinking.”

3. At some point he lied about being on the honor guard, perhaps to help his reputation as “Drunk Mike,” or maybe he created this tale while drinking and perhaps bragging about his service.

4. He was part of the honor guard, unofficially or in a small role that went unrecorded. He was in Chicago as part of the VRC. Moving Lincoln’s body was a big deal and likely required many workers beyond the official guards. In that case, the family story could be correct even if no “official records” ever existed to confirm it.

One message board mentioned a similar possibility: “as I understand it, each city which had services for Abraham Lincoln had its own set of honorary pallbearers. The honorary pallbearers walked on either side of the coffin as it was carried by the men listed above.” I realize this is not a scholarly source, and that pallbearers are not the same as an honor guard, but the thought may be worth consideration. (The distinction between a pallbearer and honor guard could be easily ignored in the sharing of this story.)

5. He was part of the honor guard, but records proving so have been lost, destroyed, misplaced, or I have simply not found them.

6. Someone else created the idea, either intentionally or not, maybe even after he died, perhaps to counter his reputation or to create family pride.

As noted previously, the newspaper article was incorrect when it claimed Michael was injured at Lookout Mountain, so it may be fair to question the accuracy of the honor guard story as well.

Michael Gabbard died on August 22, 1902 and was buried in the Esau-Gabbard Cemetery in Ricetown, Owsley County, Kentucky. After more than two decades as a widow, Mary Ann (Mangan) Gabbard died on November 14, 1923 and was buried in the Elihu Reynolds Cemetery in Cow Creek, Owsley County. Was her burial in a different cemetery due to the unhappy marriage? Or was her spouse buried in a family cemetery which ran out of room before she died?

Overall, the story of the life and marriage of Michael and Mary Ann Gabbard show how family lore intersects with history. Even if legends are not always completely and literally true, they are important, especially to that family. Many families have their own stories whose only sources are the sharing of oral history from previous generations. My own family has an undocumented story about Civil War veteran Henderson Turner walking hundreds of miles home after leaving his regiment, but we cannot find him on any military records other than the 1890 Veteran’s Census.

(For anyone who may want to investigate Michael’s career in more detail, some paperwork on Fold3 appears under “Michael Gabbard” and more under “Micheal Gabbard.”)

No matter what the realities of Michael’s injury, his service in the VRC, and his marriage, these stories of Michael and Mary Ann Gabbard give perspective on nineteenth-century America as well as historical memory, family legends and the study of history.

(All photos in this story are courtesy

149 views1 comment

1 Comment

Darryl R. Smith
Darryl R. Smith
Jan 01, 2021

A fantastic post! Really enjoyed your summation of the honor guard story possibilities.

bottom of page