Reflections on Two who Served

Today, in honor of Veteran’s Day I digress from my usual storyline, to share some reflections written a few years ago about two of young men of my family who were lost in our country’s wars. This was written as a Memorial Day reflection at church a few years ago, but the stories are also appropriate for today:

In memory of those who’ve served in wars, their mothers, fathers, siblings and others who waited at home. These stories are for remembrance.

My great-great-great-grandmother Mary Howard almost died of cholera in 1833. Her son, daughter, Howard G Affleck photosister, father, mother and husband died.  A few months later her two remaining sons died of scarlet fever.  She later married again, to Dr. John Affleck, and had 4 more children. When her son, Howard, died in the Civil War, she was no stranger to tragedy. Mary’s obituary described the loss of Howard Affleck as her “life’s great grief.” I wondered why the loss of one outweighed the loss of many until I found some family letters:

April 10, 1862 – Howard Affleck wrote: We have had a most terrible battle here. It began on Sunday April 6th and is…not yet finished… Ours is a great victory yet it has cost us the lives of thousands of our brave boys. I was severely wounded in the …left knee….. The surgeons have made several ineffectual attempts to extract the ball but…. there are thousands more badly hurt than I am, I “grin and bear it.” …..[1]

Howard marched 2 ½ miles on that wounded leg. The ball wasn’t removed until 5 days after the battle. He was sent to the Marine Hospital in Indiana – and from there sent home — to die.

May 9 – Mary’s sister, Sarah wrote: My dear Husband & children, I arrived safe……. and found Howard very weak and low. …the Drs think there is a bare chance for him, He wishes to have the limb taken off but they think he is not able to bear it. I found his father and another Physician with him when I came…. It looks to me like a very doubtful case and Mary feels it to be so, She has not undressed herself…….of nights, only changes her clothing when necessary, an[d] lies in [a]…room close by, where she hears every [move?] he makes…………….

Howard suffers extremely sometimes …..he told his mother he would not have survived if he had had any idea of the suffering, and he told his father to shoot him, the other night when he felt badly, Begged him to do it. …..he told the neighbor Physician that every man ought to take a pistol for his own benefit in case he is wounded. 

May 15 – Sarah wrote: Harriet tells that “…. [Howard] with other wounded were lying helplessly on the [river]bank, when the enemy began firing directly upon them, The shells were bursting amongst them, when a … friend of his……dragged him down under the bluff. ……. He told his Mother he had never understood what the “Horrors of war” meant—till then.

The Dr is greatly distressed, and Mary hangs over him as she always does in such times, John will know how she is and so will Husband, for they have seen her in times of great trouble. …..when She heard about [nephew] Willie coming, she said “I would be glad to see him, but he will not see Howard… I think if [our Howard] and Willie could have seen what has befallen their poor Cousin, it would cure them of all desire to enter the army. He was patriotic and brave, And see, his life has been thrown away, we may say, in that miserable battle of Shilo[h]. I suppose, if our officers had done their duty, it would not have taken place, (and ought not to have taken place)”

She resumed: Howard left us about ten this morning, …….. Mary is very sad but is more comfortable than I expected. She is distressed for fear Edward is going to war.

Mary’s remaining son, Edward, did enlist,  as did Sarah’s son Howard and son-in-law, Luther. Luther was wounded and died, Howard Forrer was killed in battle, Edward was missing.

Aug 4, 1864 Mary wrote to Sarah:  a few lines from brother John informed us of the irreparable loss you have sustained in the death of your only son. You all have my deepest sympathy, and I would…[say?] something to comfort you yet feel that any attempt at consolation would seem like mockery while my own heart is breaking for Oh! Sarah, we can learn nothing of the fate of our own precious one, and know not whether he is killed or captured…[1]  

Edward spent 6 months in a Confederate prison, was released and honorably discharged in March, 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil War.

June 18, 1865: Mary wrote to Sarah: [Edward] ….. did not come up last night as I expected. He generally comes on Saturday evening, and stays till Monday morning, and then with Harriet and the children here, it almost seems as though the ‘Old bright days had all come back again.’ Will they ever come again? Not to thee, or to me, yet we may do much to brighten the pathway of the dear ones that are still left to us, and thus in some measure, relieve the ‘blackness of darkness’ that overshadows our own… I have been looking over on the island, which is almost covered with tents of returning soldiers who are waiting to be discharged….. I feel thankful that so many of the poor fellows are permitted to return to their homes in peace but my heart aches to think of the thousands that never will return and of the one who was more to me than the whole army.[31]

My Great-Aunt Marj & Uncle Warren Burns also lost a son to war. John Patterson Burns was a WWII pursuit squadron pilot in the Phillippines. These are his words:

26burnsFebruary 28, 1942 …A year ago today I reported in to Hamilton Field. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Miss the good old days and the things I didn’t use to like. …

March 12 …….News of war doesn’t sound too good. I wonder at times how we keep going here, also wonder at the individuals desire to get through, the instinct of preservation.

March 17 Wrote letters to parents and Jean, also made out will. Have a fair estate and it will get larger daily.

March 22 Sun. Stayed in bed most of the day. Whit. got in from Cebu, brought me two wires, Jean and parents. Sure makes me feel good, especially Jean’s. She is one in millions, love the hell out of her.

March 25 Mother’s birthday. Wish she was here to nurse me, ’cause I sure am sick. She sure used to do a good job of taking care of me. I’ll bet she really worries about me.

On April 13, John Burns attempted to fly his plane as practice for evacuation, but clipped the rocks at the edge of the runway, and his plane plunged over the side of the hill. He burned to death.

In 1953, Aunt Marj wrote “On Memorial Day we always got in the spring wagon and went to the cemetery where the… (Grand Army of the Republic) held their services. I still remember them singing “Calmly sleep, sweetly sleep, those boys in blue” and how my grandmother was affected because her brother, Howard Gladstone Affleck died from wounds suffered in the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing at Shiloh. Little did I realize then that someday my own son John would be calmly, sweetly sleeping in a soldier’s grave. The words of this song came to me as I was walking back to the house from the mailbox where I had just read the telegram that John was killed in action on April 13, 1942. Calmly sleep.”

Bait & Switch?

Re-reading Hannah Hastings’ letters of courtship and early marriage to Horton Howard is helping me to create their story. As interesting as their written story, is the one I read between the lines.

Education was important to the Quakers, so it’s no surprise that Hannah’s early letters are well-written with the best grammar and spelling of the time. Throughout his life, Horton’s letters indicate that he was a well-educated man. The surprise in this story is seen in Hannah’s letters after their marriage. Her spelling of simple words was often faulty, and her use of punctuation and grammar were increasingly erratic. In later life she often delegated the task of letter writing to her children.

I suspect that she wanted to make a good impression and had help in writing those early letters. Was she simply wanting to make a good impression on a leader in her faith community, or was she trying to impress a man who was likely to soon be widowed? I wonder what Horton thought of the deterioration in his wife’s writing? It’s unlikely we’ll know either answer certain, but it is interesting to consider this question.

Morality, History & Judgement

When I began researching family history my focus was collecting names. I did not realize I was about to stumble upon the stories behind some of those names. I wasn’t pleased when I found 20 year old Horton Howard on the 1790 census listed as head of family, with a free white male of under 16 years in residence (probably his brother, John) and 26 slaves.

Continued research revealed Horton’s role in exploring the Northwest Territory, and leading his group of Quakers to land that would soon become the state of Ohio. This migration was done to escape the tyranny of slavery. The Quakers thought slavery debased the slaves’ humanity and that it debased the slave-owner’s morality even if they were benevolent slave-holders. Laws at that time prohibited freeing of slaves, except under rare circumstances, making this move an attractive option.

When the Quakers left Craven and Carteret Counties in North Carolina, some of their slaves followed them to this land of new-found freedom. Others, especially if they were married to slaves on neighboring plantations, elected to remain behind. In recent conversation, a friend asked me what happened to the slaves of the Howard household. I did not know whether any of the 26 slaves had made it to the Northwest Territory.

Last week, I was working with a letter written in 1807, by Hannah Howard, to Horton when he was away on business. A couple of names in one letter looked familiar: Isaac and “Miner”. I looked back to the estate inventory of Horton’s father and found those same names. These men working for Horton were probably the Isaac and “Minor” listed on that inventory.

It’s challenging to research and write about a slaveholding ancestor – and not a comfortable situation to acknowledge. I’ve not yet found anything, and perhaps never will, to tell us how Horton treated the people who had once been his legal property. In Hannah”s letter we know that Isaac had been too sick to work, and hoped to be well enough on the following day, indicating some degree of autonomy. We don’t know how well he was paid, how long a work day he had or how strenuously he worked.

Perhaps it’s not important to know that much detail. I was glad to learn that Horton provided freedom for at least some of his slaves, and that he and his friends promoted abolition and were involved in other acts of social justice. By the standards of their time, they were progressive.

On our trip to Horton’s part of North Carolina in May, I purchased a book, Blackbeard the Pirate, by Robert E. Lee. He says “it is a common error of mankind to judge the historical figures of a past age by the moral standards of the present. One cannot understand history if one takes men and events out of their moral context and attempts to interpret them by present day values.” Perhaps the actions of men like Horton Howard and his friends provided a starting place that allowed the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of a black president to happen at later dates. I wonder what progress or regression we will continue to see in our lifetimes.