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 novel 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 novel, 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 understand better 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 novel is based...

Jim D.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Letter #47 -- Camp Near Danville Junction, VA -- April 8, 1865

As the war nears the end, and on the day before General Robert E. Lee surrenders the Army of  Northern Virginia at Appomattox, John is again writing home to his parent to give them an update.  An update that but a short two weeks removed from his prior letter of March 26, 1865.

The 48th PVI has now moved from the outskirts of Petersburg, VA to Danville Junction, VA on their way to Farmville, VA in pursuit of Lee's army.   This movement was as the result of General Grant's strategic "boxing" of Lee's army to prevent the latter from escaping the inevitable defeat of this Confederate army.

John writes his letter on April 8, 1865 and given the number of confederate prisoners and the rag-tag condition of Lee's army, he is probably aware of the coming end of the war.  By now, John is tired of the war and long's to come home.  The war has destroyed his body and soul with a continued deterioration of his spirit in his writing.  He has suffered through a leg wound at Second Bull Run, and numerous pneumonias starting in 1861.  Based on his doctor's analysis after the war and after his death in 1876, John suffered from Rheumatic Carditis as a result of having contracted Rheumatic Fever during the his service in the army.  The first instance was in the Fall and Winter of 1861/62 during the 48th PVI deployment to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Subsequent bouts of pneumonia and sickness followed him in 1862, 1863 and in 1864 after his work in the "Crater Mine" at Petersburg.

In his April 8th letter John writes to his parents and his insight is fairly keen.  He describes the fall of Petersburg and Richmond and anticipates Lynchburg and Danville's fall soon.  At this point he doesn't know that the very next day, Lee would capitulate and the his part of the war would be over.  He describes the prisoners (13,000) that he has seen and he is undoubtably happy that war is going the Union way.  He is still a teamster, which has served him well after his wounding.  He mentions his cousins John D. Weikle and that Weikle is "working on his drate (trade)".  I'm not sure what he does, but clearly his parents do. 


Camp near Danville Junction, Va.
April 8th, 1865

My Dear Father and Mother,         

            I take my pen in hand to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I am still driving team yet and expect to stay at yet a while.  I am sorry to hear that Father is sick but I hope till this letter comes to hand that he well again if not sooner.  I let you know that I got the shirt today and it was all right.  You didn’t say whether you was going to send another one or not but I want you to send me the other one too.  We are marching every day and it is very warm all ready.  I suppose you know that Petersburg and Richmond is in our hands and Lynchburg and Danville is gone up before long.  They are fighting every day but our corps ain’t engaged.  They are guarding the wagon train through from Petersburg.  Don’t trouble yourselfs about me.  I am still driving team and are getting along well.  I haven’t been sick since I was at home last spring.  I seen John D. Weikle today and he is well too and is working on his drate (trade).  We are making great calculations about the war being over till fall and I do think it will come so too.  I seen 13,000 rebel prisoners in two weeks time.  That looks pretty good to bring the war to a close.  I seen the City of Petersburg and come through it.  It is a nice place.  We didn’t come to Richmond yet but I hope we will come to see it for we was fighting for it long enough.  I have no more to write today so I will bring my letter to a close for this time.  So this few lines from your son.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Answer soon and direct your letter as before and let me know how Father is getting along.  So goodbye to you all till we see each other again.  I got the almanac.

A few years ago, I had a friend who gave me two cobble stones that were thrown out during a repaving of downtown Petersburg, VA.  This repaving was done in the 1960s and these stones were eventually carted away as rubble.  They apparently had been in place since the 1840s in Petersburg.  John describes Petersburg as "a nice place".  I wonder if he trod upon these very stones!

Jim D.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Letter #46 -- Camp Near Petersburg, VA -- March 26, 1865

It's been a long time...a long long time.  I should have finished this blog/letters contribution last year and given closure to the letters of John W. Derr.  I was reminded of my delinquency by a follower of this website and for that, I apologize.  With over 100,000 page views, I am well pleased with the results of my project.  I sincerely appreciate the followers, casual viewers and the insightful and kind words people have sent to me.

So...on with the letters...

John references personal information as well as battle information.  From the description of "a small fight here on the 25", I take it that this was the battle of Fort Stedman. General Lee's final gasping attempt to breakout through the Petersburg siege lines and regroup his depleted army. Though John calls it "a small fight", and his casualty numbers are rather large, the official numbers are referenced below in a small paragraph on the battle at Fort Stedman provided by the Civil War Trust website.

Battle of Fort Stedman
March 25, 1865
In a last-gasp offensive, Gen. Robert E. Lee amassed nearly half of his army in an attempt to break through Grant’s Petersburg defenses and threaten his supply depot at City Point.  Directed by Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, the pre-dawn assault on March 25 overpowered the garrisons of Fort Stedman and Batteries X, XI, and XII. The Confederates were brought under a killing crossfire, and counterattacks led by Maj. Gens. Parke and Hartranft contained the breakthrough, cut off, and captured more than 1,900 of the attackers. During the day, elements of the II and VI Corps assaulted and captured the entrenched picket lines in their respective fronts, which had been weakened for the assault on Fort Stedman. This was a devastating blow for Lee’s army, setting up the Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1 and the fall of Petersburg on April 2-3.

John also references the I and III Corps, though that seems to be incorrect as well.

John, as always, is concerned about monies that he sent home with friends for his parents to save for him.  Francis Dengler, an agent in town more than likely was able to draw this $50 for John and pass it to his parents.  John is also concerned about the coming summer weather and clothing he has to wear.  During this time, soldiers would switch from a woolen shirt to a cotton shirt, which was cooler in the hot humid months in the south.  As you would expect, he needs new shirts every season, as the conditions in which he lived were rather rough and clothing wore out very fast.

Camp near Petersburg, Va.
March the 26, 1865

My Dear Father and Mother,

            I take my pen in hand to write this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I hope that this few lines will find you in the same state of good health.  I received your letter the other day and I was very glad to hear from you and hear that the boys are all well again.  I am sorry that you wasn’t at home when Franklin Hoch was there for I would like to have them shirts for this summer.  Them woolen shirts are too warm in summer.  I think you could do them up in some brown paper and put the direction on it and send them by mail.  If two makes too big a bundle send one at a time and let me know whether you are going to send it or not.  You said that you got the money from Francis Dengler.  It was a fifty dollar bill and I think you got it so.  I let you know that we had a small fight here on the 25.  Our loss is about 500 killed, wounded and prisoners and theirs lost about 5,000.  That was quite a haul for about a two hours fight.  Our division wasn’t in the fight only the first and third.  I am glad to hear that all the boys are well again and I am the same.  I have no more to write today so I will bring my letter to a close for this time.  From your son.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Answer soon and direct your letter John W. Derr, 2nd Division Ammunition Trainin, 9th Army Corps, Washington, D.C. Peter Derr answer soon.         




Jim D