Monday, June 29, 2020

A Widow's Due

I have mentioned in previous blogs...years ago...that I was working on a book that I would release in the near future.  Well...that future is now.  I just release my book, A Widow's Due, on Amazon yesterday in Kindle format.  There will be a hardcover release in a few months, once my publisher sorts out problems that they are having during the COVID crisis.  However, I was impatient and wanted this story to be out there for folks to read and fulfill a life long dream to write it. 

Originally, started as a historical record about my great-great grandfather, John W. Derr (the subject of this overall blog), quickly shifted gears as the research process progressed.  The book touches upon the early life of John, but is mainly about the his widow Magdalena Derr, who was left a widow with two small children after the war.  Her story started to take on a life of its own, that over shadowed John's.  In the future I will put pen to paper to finish the overall story of John W. Derr's Civil War letters, but for now, it is Magdalena's turn.  Below is Preface to my book, A Widow's Due.

In June of 1971, my father bestowed upon me a gift so very rare, I’m still in awe of his courage at doing so. This amazing gift was something that belonged in a museum, not the hands of a twelve-year-old boy. The priceless gift given to me were all the letters written home by my great-great grandfather, during his four years of service in the American Civil War. These original letters, complete with stamped envelopes, were a personal treasure of my father and something for which he’d been the caretaker for over twenty years. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the love and fear he had in passing them down to his only son. With these letters, he’d also given me various old 19th century coins and currency he’d collected from his ancestors, including old Confederate paper money and other artifacts. This sparked in me a great interest for coin and stamp collecting, and he understood it would be a good time for me to learn about both my family history and responsibility. 
Later in the summer of 1971, the annual coin and stamp show was held in Vienna, Virginia, at the community center. I’d been going there since I was eight years old, when I’d cut open my piggy bank and was fascinated by the old coins inside. Having received the letters, I decided to take one of them to the event. I showed it to the first stamp dealer I saw, who offered me $250 on the spot. Of course, he was interested in the patriotic envelope and stamp that was part of this particular letter. I was very excited and ran out to the pay phone to call my father and tell him the good news! While on the phone, I could sense my dad’s unease and lack of enthusiasm. He explained to me the importance of the letters and added that he’d entrusted them to me, but they were mine, and I could do whatever I pleased with them. I thought long and hard about what he said, and it was then I understood for the first time the importance of these letters to my family heritage. The scattering of a few letters to dealers here and there would destroy the unique treasure I had and needed to preserve. When I got 
home and told my dad I had indeed not sold the letter, I could tell he was proud of me. That was probably one of the happiest days of my life. I’ve come to understand I really am only the trustee for these forty-eight letters, and I need to ensure they stay together…forever. 
My great-great-grandfather’s letters also proved to be the catalyst for a much more interesting aspect of my family history. Ever since I was a child, my father had told me of an unknown “family secret” of which nobody knew or spoke. He inquired with my various great-uncles and aunts to find out more about this secret, to no avail; it was to remain buried in family lore, unexposed to future generations. After my aunts, uncles, and grandparents died, both my father and I assumed it would be forever lost and forgotten. 
One day in 1987, I decided to go to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to look at the military service records for my various ancestors who’d fought in the Civil War. During this records search and retrieval, a detailed story began to unfold. The records for John W. Derr were large and robust, unlike my other ancestors, whose records were rather modest. I spent three hours poring over the details on each sheet of paper, copying them as I went along. Soon, it became clear I’d uncovered “the family secret,” and my excitement grew with each page I read. I’d discovered the truly interesting and important story of my family was not of the men patriotically going off to war, but the women and how they provided the strength and survival instincts that made my family what it is today. 
This story is about the struggles of one woman in 19th century America and what constituted a “normal” female role in life. It shows what one strong and determined woman could do in a society that didn’t respect those who tried to break out of the norms of the day and how whole communities both respected and reviled what she did to survive those times. What had started as a man’s story soon became a woman’s and forever changed my outlook on life. What began as a family “shame” had changed to one of family “pride.” While I am proud to be the great-great-
grandson of a man who spent four years fighting for his country during the Civil War, I’m honored to be the great-great-grandson of his widow, Mary Magdalena Diehl Derr. She was the strong cornerstone in an otherwise harsh and judgmental era. This story is in honor of her, and a statement on the incredible strength and determination of women – for without them, we would all be lost. 

James P. Derr (great-great-grandson of John W. Derr and Magdalena D. Derr) 
March 2020 

For those who are interested, the Ebook can be found at the link below:

Jim D.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Veterans Day 2018 - Thank you again.

This is a repost of my original from 2013.  I am honored to be part of this great American family.


I am fortunate to live in this great country and to have had ancestors who fought in the various conflicts to keep all of us free.  My tribute today is to my Father, Grandfather, Great Great Grandfathers and my Mother...all of whom contributed directly to supporting our freedom.

Here's my Dad, Donald J. Derr in 1945...A World War II Navy Veteran:

Here's my Grandfather, Robert V. Price...a World War I Army Veteran:

Here's my Great Great Grandfather, John W. Derr...A Civil War Veteran (48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Co. D):

Here's my other Great Great Grandfather, John Z. Wagner... A Civil War Veteran (55th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Co. E):

And here' my Mom, M. Jane Price...a World War II Victory Farm Volunteer as a teenager:

My mom always wanted help the effort during World War II and so as a teenager in High School, she volunteer to work on a Victory Farm in Connecticut for the Summer of 1944.  This quite an adventure for a teenage girl from the coal regions of Pennsylvania.

Victory Farm Volunteers was an organization which recruited teenage boys and girls to work on various farms in support of the war effort during World War II.  My mom, like many teenagers of the time, volunteered to work on farms around the country to provide the "man power" lost when the young men went off to war.  It provide both a level of farm continuity as well as a morale boost on the home front.  My mom would later recount how she worked on a tobacco farm in Connecticut...which later in life she regretted due to the type of crop she helped farm.  However....many troops enjoyed the tobacco produced at that farm and her efforts my opinion...very heroic!


Jim D.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Altered Focus: The "Real" Story

I have not updated this blog in many, many months.   I have been preoccupied developing the "creative non-fiction" book that I am writing relating to John W. Derr and his life.  I say "relating" because my initial focus for the storyline was on him...his life...his service and his sad decline and death at an early age.  However as I worked the normal due diligence of write such a book, I found that the real story lies with his great-great grandmother...Magdalena Derr, and her struggles after the death of John.  While John's life in the war was unique and interesting...Magdalena's was truly compelling.  It has afforded me the opportunity to better understand my family roots.  How so?  Over the years my focus had been on John and his service during the Civil War.  This was natural, since I have the letters that he wrote home to his family during that conflict.  The benefit of the letters is obvious, in so much as I can understand what the man was thinking on any particular letter-writing day during the war.  Frankly, that was the easy part, and it was somewhat lazy of me to rely only on these letters to define my heritage.  However...the real story lies with his wife Magdalena, who in 1876 at the young age of twenty-four, became a widow with two sons aged two and three years old.  Penniless, spouse-less, homeless...this strong woman managed to figure out how to get by in life.  A lesson for all of us.  A pride that I had for my Civil War ancestor, soon transitioned to his less talked about 19th century hero!

We tend to focus quite a bit on the men of the Civil War...the soldiers.  Less focus is place on those who were left at home and who struggled to live and cope.  In the case of Magdalena, her husband's war death came in a delayed fashion...eleven years after the end of the war...but a war casualty just the same.  If you have been following my blog, you will know that John suffered from a variety of problems during the war.  Early in his service he contracted rheumatic fever during a bout of bronchitis.  He was wounded in the leg at the second battle of Bull Run and taken prisoner.  He suffered another life threatening bout of pneumonia during the siege of Petersburg.  All of these elements had a life altering, and shortening affect on him...from which he never fully recovered.  Dying in 1876 at age 37, with "Rheumatic Carditis" being his ultimate enemy.

My novel has taken a different branch in the road.  It now focuses on my great-great grandmother, Mary Magdalena Diehl Derr and her survival instincts that allowed her to raise her family...and to love again.  It has taken quite a bit of research to get the full view of her life.  Each little documentary gem that I have found brings me closer to a woman who I never met and for whom I have no photographs.

The project started in 1988 when I happened to talk to a gentleman with a mutual interest in Civil War ancestry.  He told me that the general public was allowed to access records of their ancestor's service via the National Archives in Washington, D.C..  Since I lived in the Metro D.C. area, I excitedly made the trek to national mall to visit the archives.  I was already familiar with John W. Derr's service, but not so much for other ancestors who had served.  I asked my father and mother about our family history regarding the civil war and they gave me information about ancestors, regiments, etc...that I could use to retrieve the respective records of these men.   Armed with a list of men and a Metro fare card, I made my way to the archives.  The process of getting a researcher card as well as a Xerox payment card for any records that I wished to copy, was easy.   I submitted my records requests and in less than an hour, I had the records of four different ancestors who had fought during the war.   Three of the folders measured approximately one inch thick and contained general muster rolls, pension applications, affidavits, etc...  However, one of the folders was approximately six inches thick, containing the same artifacts as the others, but with a twist...many more affidavits and government documents.  I became intrigued with this and began reading and what had been planned to be a two hour copying session, turned into an eight hour reading and copying marathon!

Growing up I spent many hours talking history with my father.  Both of us had a keen passion for history, especially how it related to our ancestors.  The letters of John W. Derr had sparked that interest in it had in me.  I remember as a young boy, my father telling me that the family had a deep dark secret that nobody, still living, knew.  I was always curious about this "deep dark secret".  Unfortunately, with the death of my grandfather in 1970, that secret had gone with him to his grave.  Our family was a typical one from the 1960s and 1970s, with no controversy or issues, so the the thought of a "never spoken about" secret being in the family history was exciting!

The eight hour marathon reading and copying session at the archives had revealed to me just what that family secret contained.  I hurriedly made my way back to the Metro station, and on the way I stopped to call my father from a pay phone.  When he answered the phone I said "I know the family secret!".  Over the next few weeks, he and I spent hours upon hours poring over the copied documents in order to piece together the full story...A story from which my book is based...

Jim D.