Friday, January 25, 2013

Elizabeth Salome Myers: A Gettysburg Hero Part Two

Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.

                                                                   ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno 

Elizabeth "Sallie" Myers

...Continuing the true story of Sallie Myers, the fighting in and around Gettysburg had subsided by late afternoon. Wounded from both sides were being brought into any structure that would shelter them in town--thousands of casualties.

Sallie Myers was called along with other women to assist the wounded. The Catholic church was just down the street from her father’s home and she went to volunteer however she could. She had always feared the sight of blood and was terrified what might be asked of her. From her diary:

On pews and floors men lay, the groans of the suffering and dying were heartrending. I knelt beside the first man near the door and asked what I could do. “Nothing,” he replied, “I am going to die.” I went outside the church and cried. I returned and spoke to the man—he was wounded in the lungs and spine, and there was not the slightest hope for him. The man was Sergeant Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers. I read a chapter of the Bible to him, it was the last chapter his father had read before he left home. The wounded man died on Monday, July 6th.

Sergeant Stewart was the first wounded man brought in, but others followed. The sight of blood never again affected me and I was among wounded and dying men day and night. While the battle lasted and the town was in possession of the rebels, I went back and forth between my home and the hospitals without fear. The soldiers called me brave, but I am afraid the truth was that I did not know enough to be afraid and if I had known enough, I had no time to think of the risk I ran, for my heart and hands were full.

I went daily through the hospitals with my writing materials, reading and answering letters. This work enlisted all my sympathies, and I received many kind and appreciative letters from those who could not come. Besides caring for the wounded, we did all we could for the comfort of friends who came to look after their loved ones.

I would not care to live that summer again, yet I would not willingly erase that chapter from my life's experience; and I shall always be thankful that I was permitted to minister to the wants and soothe the last hours of some of the brave men who lay suffering and dying for the dear old flag.

Elizabeth received a letter from Alexander's younger brother after the battle, Henry Stewart who was a preacher. He arrived in Gettysburg the following summer with his mother to see to Alexander's grave. Elizabeth had become close to Henry through their letters and a romance began after they met. They were married in 1867, and although Henry was not to live for more than a year, she had a son in 1869 named Henry Alexander Stewart.

Nationally recognized for her efforts to help the wounded at Gettysburg she eventually returned to teaching and worked with the National Association of Army Nurses. She passed away in 1922 and is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg. She never remarried. Her son Henry became a doctor. Her account of Gettysburg was published in 1903: How A Gettysburg Schoolteacher Spent Her Vacation in 1863.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Elizabeth Salome Myers: A Gettysburg Hero Part One

Courage is grace under pressure.

                                        ― Ernest Hemingway

     People are always moved by the courage of everyday people doing a heroic act to help someone. A few years ago, a 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey became a New York hero when he rescued a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks. With total disregard for his own safety he leaped into the path of an onrushing train to save a complete stranger. He later told the New York Times, "I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”

     That is raw courage, to put oneself in harm's way to save the life of another person.

     But there is another kind of courage--the courage to face down one's own fears. Some of us fear the dark, or fire, while others cringe at the even the suggestion of a spider. If we had to face one of our own greatest fears in order to help someone, would we all have the same courage to do what is right in the event of an emergency?

     Elizabeth Salome Meyers was just like most of us. She was from a well-to-do family that lived in Gettysburg in 1863. Just 21 years old, she was a devoted school teacher. "Sallie" had never been witness to much suffering in life. She was terrified by the sight of blood. Yet she would take part in the battle of Gettysburg and overcome her fears to do whatever was required to assist the wounded. Gettysburg would become the defining moment of her entire life, and she would devote all her remaining years to the study and practice of nursing.

     When the Confederates moved to occupy Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, they were opposed by two brigades of Union cavalry. The Federals were soon reinforced by an entire corps of 20,000 men. By mid afternoon both armies were locked in a savage fight for control of the lands just outside town. When the Union army began to fall back through Gettysburg, the people realized their streets would soon become the next battlefield. Trapped between two massive armies, the townspeople took shelter in their cellars and prayed.

Elizabeth Salome "Sallie" Myers

From her diary of July 1, 1863:

     While our elders prepared food, we girls stood on the corner near our house and gave refreshments of all kinds to ‘our boys’ of the First Corps, who were double-quicking down Washington Street to join the troops already engaged in battle west of the town. After the men had all passed, we sat on our doorsteps or stood around in groups, frightened nearly out of our wits but never dreaming of defeat. 

"Water for the Marching Troops", from Clifton Johnson's Battlefield Adventures, 1915.

     At 10 o'clock that morning I saw the first blood. A horse was led past our house covered with blood. The sight sickened me. Then three men came up the street. The middle one could barely walk. His head had been hastily bandaged and blood was visible. I grew faint with horror. I had never been able to stand the sight of blood, but I was destined to become used to it.

     Then came the order: ‘Women and children to the cellars; the rebels will shell the town.’ We lost little time in obeying the order. My home was on West High Street, near Washington (Street) and in the direct path of the retreat (of the Union Army).

     We knelt, shivering, and prayed. The noise above our heads and from the distance, the rattle of musketry, the screeching of shells, and the unearthly cries, mingled with the sobbing of the children shook our hearts. Three soldiers crept down into the cellar, and we concealed and fed them.

     After the Rebels had gained full possession of the town, some of our men who had been captured were standing near the cellar window. One of them asked if some of us would take their addresses and the addresses of friends and write to them of their capture. I took thirteen and wrote as they requested. I received answers from all but one, and several of the soldiers revisited the place of their capture and recognized the house and cellar window. While the battle lasted we concealed and fed three men in our cellar.

... to be continued.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Research Gems: "Battleground Adventures" by Clifton Johnson, 1915

Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time.
                                                                                                                    ― Francis Parkman Jr.

     As a historian and writer I often feel like a miner of sorts. I am digging for information, for details and interesting stories. Most of all I am searching for eye-witness accounts. When I find some wonderful nuggets I call them the gems of my research.

     One of the great finds during this recent project studying Gettysburg was a digitized copy of a long forgotten book from 1915 called (of all things) Battleground Adventures: The True Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War. That is quite a title isn't it? 

     Inside, however, was treasure... the author Clifton Johnson traveled around to the major battlefields of the Civil War in about 1912 or so, and interviewed residents who had witnessed the fighting. There were six interviews with people from Gettysburg. The author kept the identities of his subjects anonymous. They were identified only as, "The Carriage Maker's Boy" or "The Bank Clerk."

     Two of them, however, were African Americans voices: "The Colored Farm Hand" and "The Colored Servant Maid." This was significant because, as one might suspect, there is not a lot written by African American writers of that time who were at Gettysburg in 1863. Yet both, however interesting, were too colloquial; their stories not tied to the narrative of the battle I was really after.  Two of the other accounts, however, "The Bank Clerk" and "The School Teacher" both documented African Americans fleeing Gettysburg as Lee's army approached. In my mind they are some of the most valuable accounts because it was the perfect way to introduce the issue of slavery into the narrative of the new book.

 African American refugees fleeing Gettysburg.

     Even more interesting... one of the chapters was entitled, "The Schoolteacher." It captivated me because one of the accounts I was studying was the diary of Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Meyers who was a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher in 1863. Could they be one and the same?

Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Meyers

     The notes of the published edition of her diary mentioned that Sally Meyers had been interviewed at her home at Gettysburg by an author about the same time Clifton Johnson was traveling around conducting his interviews. The story she relates to Johnson and her own diary entries corroborate. Yet she reveled new and interesting details about her experiences in 1863 to Johnston. One of them was this moving passage about the plight of the African Americans in Gettysburg before the battle:

Every report of raiding would set the Africans to migrating, they were so afraid they’d be carried off into slavery. They looked very ragged and forlorn, and some exaggerated their ills by pretending to be lame, for they wanted to appear as undesirable as possible to any beholder who might be tempted to take away their freedom.

The chapter entitled "The Bank Clerk" included more about African Americans fleeing Gettysburg:

...a great many refugees passed through Gettysburg going northward. Some would have a spring wagon and a horse, but usually they were on foot, burdened with bundles containing a couple of quilts, some clothing, and a few cooking utensils. . . .  The farmers along the roads sheltered them nights. Most of these here poor runaways would drift into the towns and find employment, and there they’d make their future homes.

     Both of these accounts made the final manuscript for the new book. I was most pleased to discover them. Gettysburg was an important waypoint on the Underground Railroad. It had a reasonably large African American population in 1863 of skilled laborers and farmers. It would have been unthinkable to write an account of Gettysburg without telling their story.

     Sally Meyers was to become a real Gettysburg hero. I will write more about her in a following blog post...

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Inspiring Authors: J.R.R. Tolkien -- Embracing Faith

 All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.


     Today marks the birthday of one of the greatest writers of the last century, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He was born 121 years ago today in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien

     I believe that often books find us at the right time in our own journey. Tolkien's writing found me later in life that it does for most people who read The Hobbit as children. My best friend was telling me for YEARS "You should be reading Tolkien!" By the time I did manage to take an interest in The Lord of the Rings I had completed a masters in history and knew a great deal about the industrial revolution and the First World War.  When I learned Tolkien had been a combat veteran of the Somme I immediately took to the themes of his writing and the underlying hidden messages.

Second lieutenant Tolkien, Lancashire Fusiliers in 1916

     It has been pointed out that the major theme of Tolkien's writing is death. By 1918 many of his closest friends from school had been killed in the war--deaths which profoundly affected him as a writer. He later said:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

     He also conceded that his writing was primarily a religious and Catholic story:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.

 Art by Ted Nasmith

     What I find most inspiring about Tolkien is that he came out of the First World War and wrote an epic Christian novel fundamentally about hope against evil and despair. The youth of his era have been called the "lost generation"--they were stripped of their beliefs in God and country in a war unparalleled in history for its meaningless, catastrophic waste of life. Many survivors abandoned their faith in God.

     Thomas Shippey, a leading Tolkien scholar, refers to authors such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others as "traumatized writers"--combat veterans whose life and death experiences on the Western Front was a defining moment of their lives. They turned to the written page to seek or express answers to the experience of a war that had nearly killed them. Other great writers belong here: the British poets Siegfried Sassoon and  Wilfred Owen, the novelists Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That), Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), and Henri Barbusse (Under Fire), to name just a few. In their writing one feels the cynicism, the despair and hopelessness they experienced in war.

     Tolkien chose another path. He took the loss of friends--the fear and darkness of his own past and wrote an epic of friendship, of sacrifice and the triumph of good over evil. Ultimately he wrote about hope and salvation. By creating Lord of the Rings Tolkien felt he would bring himself and his readers closer to God. He explained:

We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.

     I believe Tolkien witnessed one of the darkest moments in human history and felt compelled to write on his faith as a Christian that humanity will not succumb to to evil. This he expressed through The Lord of the Rings.  At the heart of Tolkien's writing is a belief in the true Christian myth, that we are created in the image of the Maker and exist in an evil and fallen world to be redeemed if we seek God's truth. In seeking truth one can live optimistically, without despair.

     Tolkien reminds us that time is short, to hold our loved ones close, to cherish our friends, to be true and noble to each other, to believe in God and our ultimate salvation. In doing so his writing transcends from the written page and into our everyday lives.

Happy birthday John, we miss you.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ties to the Past: Amos Humiston--The Unknown Soldier of Gettysburg

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time
be utterly lost;

That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly
wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:

... For my enemy is dead -- a man as divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I
draw near;

I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in
the coffin.

                                                                   --WALT WHITMAN, Reconciliation

Sgt. Amos Humiston, 154th New York Volunteers

     During the research for this new book the most important discovery was learning that the the unknown soldier of Gettysburg, Amos Humiston, was born in my hometown of Owego, New York. As a writer, it just made the connection to my subject that much stronger. 

     The story is quite famous. As the Gettysburg townspeople began burying the dead, the body of a Union soldier was discovered tucked off a street where he had crawled, mortally wounded, to die. His jacket had no badges, no signs of rank or unit, and his pockets contained nothing to identify him—no letters or diary. Yet in his hand he grasped a small photo of three young children. The last act of his life had been to gaze upon their faces.

Franklin, Frederick and Alice Humiston

No name — but a soldier brave, he fell.
We shall find her, without a name;
This picture, sometime, will tell whence he came.

— Emily Latimer, “The Unknown"

     The photo came into the possession of Dr. J. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia doctor on his way to help the wounded from the battlefield. He hoped to locate the mother of the children in the photograph by publishing a detailed description of the children in all the local papers. A major story ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 19, 1863, entitled, “Whose Father Was He?” As the story grew in fame and as the photo of the children was printed onto thousands of small post cards, the nation waited in suspense. Would anyone identify the children?

     Dr. Bourns soon received a letter from a woman in Portville, New York, who had not heard from her husband since the battle of Gettysburg. She requested a copy of the photograph. When she received it in the mail she looked upon the faces of her three children—Franklin, Alice, and Frederick—who were now fatherless. The woman’s name was Phylinda Humiston. Her fallen husband was Sergeant Amos Humiston of Company C, 154th New York Volunteers. Sergeant Humiston came to symbolize the thousands of missing men at Gettysburg and other battles, whose widows and orphaned children waited for them in vain.

The following is a poem he wrote to his wife a few months before his death:

To My Wife

You have put the little ones to bed dear wife
And covered them over with care
My Frankey Alley and Fred
And they have said their evening prayer

Perhaps they breathed the name of one
Who is far in southern land
And wished he too were there
To join their little band

I am very sad to tonight dear wife
My thoughts are dwelling on home and thee
As I keep the lone night watch
Beneath the holly tree

The winds are sighing through the trees
And as they onward roam
They whisper hopes of happiness
Within our cottage home

And as they onward passed
Over hill and vale and bubbling stream
They wake up thoughts within my soul
Like music in a dream

Oh when will this rebellion cease
This cursed war be over
And we our dear ones meet
To part from them no more?

March 25th 1863

     Three years after the battle, an orphanage was established at Gettysburg—called The Homestead Association—for the benefit of children whose fathers had been killed in the service of their country. Mrs. Humiston and her children were among the first to reside at the home. James Garfield, future president of the United States, was on the board of trustees. Dr. Bourns served as the first general secretary. The founding of the orphanage was reported nationwide for a citizenry still trying to understand the meaning of the great sacrifices made during the Civil War.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.