Friday, September 23, 2011

My Name is Mary Sutter: A Novel - My Review

About a week ago, my wife Laura, recommended a book that I might like to read and that would dovetail nicely with this blog.  The book is titled; "My Name is Mary Sutter:  A Novel", by Robin Oliveira, and was one she had read earlier in the year.  In general, Laura and I enjoy different types and styles of books.  Her...dramas, historical novels, and fun, sci-fi and the occasional literature in order to assuage my embarrassment over having read Cliff's Notes all through high school and college.  So, I was a little nervous about taking up one of "her" books to read.  I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this book!  For what it's worth, I gave it 4 out of 5 stars...where 5 stars are reserved for classics and my sci-fi favorites.

The book is centered on the life of a young (20 year old) woman, Mary Sutter, who a wealthy northerner during the time just prior and during the Civil War.  She lives with her Mother, twin sister and brother with the father having just died prior to the start of the book.  Mary's mother is a midwife and Mary grew to love the medical field through support to her mother's midwifery.  After becoming an acknowledged midwife of her own, Mary's single desire in life is to become a medical doctor...specifically a a time where women were not welcome in that profession.  Many attempts at both medical school applications and internships with physicians failed and a frustrated Mary decides to answer the call to become a nurse during the onset of the Civil War.  The story takes the reader through the horrors that was the medical field as well as the hospital situation at that time.  From the battle of Bull Run through Antietam, Mary becomes an accomplished physician in her own right.  A story well told and gripping.

Laura hit the nail on the head with this one.  With JWD's wounding at the Second Battle of Bull Run, I was able to "live" the experience he must have had, being wounded in the leg...being taken prisoner...being parole to Georgetown College Hospital and ultimate transferred to Philadelphia's Cherry Street Hospital and released.  His total time from the wounding on August 30th, 1862 to his release in January 1862 was 5 months.  I never really understood why it took so long.  Now I know.

As Oliveira describes in the book, if the wound didn't kill you...infection would.  If infection didn't kill you...other disease would.  If disease didn't kill you...starvation would.  Quite amazing that JWD survived.  Not was also the reason for his short life.

Jim D.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bits and Pieces and a Little Clean-up

Since this blog is meant to be dynamic and not static, I thought I'd spend a "blog week" doing a little bit of housekeeping in order to add to blogs that I had posted previously.  Probably a good thing to do, before I get to a point in a few years whereby my reflections on this website become inaccurate and embarrassing.

Two weeks ago, I had the grand intention of doing in-the-field research in preparation for future letter posts.  My family and I had a vacation planned for the Outer Banks in North Carolina....more specifically...the Corolla area on the barrier islands.  Living in the Washington DC area, my plan was to drive down I-95 south and cut over to I-295 on my way to I-64 in the Hampton, Virginia area.  The plan was to visit and absorb the history of the Cold Harbor battlefield...part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park - Cold Harbor visitor center (  JWD fought at Cold Harbor in 1864 and I wanted have a sense for location and terrain.

After Cold Harbor, I was planning to continue down I-64 to Hampton and visit Fort Monroe                      ( just before the Hampton Roads Tunnel.  JWD was there in 1862 prior to the launching of the Burnsides Expedition to the Outer Banks area of North Carolina...this will be seen in the next letter I post on October 19th.

Next, I planned a trip down NC-12 on the Outer Banks with a first stop at the wreck of the USS Oriental in order to take photographs of the still visible wreck from shore.   In my blog dated August 25th, I gave a partial write-up of the connection between the "George Peabody Boat"  (aka USS George Peabody) and the USS Oriental....(  More on this below....

Lastly, I decided that another trip to the Hatteras point would complete the barrier island adventure.   There, I planned to visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic museum along with visiting the tribute to the 48th PVI located in the parking lot of the museum.  (  that was the grand plan!  Unfortunately, a little thing called Hurricane Irene decided differently.
We ended up leaving a couple of days late due to the storm as well as the overall closure of the barrier islands to the general storm.  When we finally got going on the Monday of that week, I found out that most of the I-295 and I-64 corridor was without power...hence...the Cold Harbor battlefield and Fort Monroe were closed.   This, however, was only the beginning.  The hurricane was so damaging to the thinly protected sandbar called the Outer Banks, that part of NC-12 south of the Oregon Inlet and north of Rodanthe was literally washed away.  The Oregon Inlet Bridge and the road south were closed.  Given that the USS Oriental wreck is located on Pea Island, just south of the bridge, and that Hatteras was even further south...strike four!   However, I must say that my little inconvenience is nothing, compared to the major disruption to the residents of Hatteras Island....

NC-12 at Mirlo Beach north of Rodanthe, NC (August 28, 2011) Photo from

Some new info I found......

As I previously wrote, the USS George Peabody was the transport ship that carried the 48th PVI to battles on the North Carolina coast.  Additionally, it was also identified as the ship that provided search-and-rescue for the passengers and crew of the Oriental when it ran aground in May of 1862.  I was excited to hear that the same ship that transported my gg-grandfather, was also mentioned as the primary rescue craft for this doomed vessel.     During a trip to a bookstore in Corolla, NC, I picked up a book, "Shipwrecks of North Carolina" by Gary Gentile, and searched to see if there was any more information about the USS so happens that Mr. Gentile writes...

"Members of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment stationed at Fort Hatteras, were involved in the rescue."

Hmm....could JWD have been involved?  That...I will probably never know....

USS Oriental

USS Oriental in distress, May 1864 - Harpers Weekly

USS Oriental from the beach on Pea Island

So...I guess the moral of this story is that you CAN make lemonade out of lemons...this little bit of information that I dug out of a bookstore on the Outer Banks, while bored and disappointed for not having been able to execute my research plan...ended up being the hit of the trip!

Jim D.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

John W. Derr or John H. Derr?...oh...and Thank You

I'd like to thank the people who have emailed me with both praise and thanks for the work I am doing.  I do appreciate the encouragement and keeps the project exciting and worthwhile.  So...thank you.  A special thanks to my family and friends as well as encouragement and linking recommendations from Ranger John Hoptak (author of the definitive history of the 48th PVI on his unbelievable website, Dave Derbes (President of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County and Stu Richards (Author of the long running website ).  I recommend following these websites for stories, musings, historical information, and entertainment.

Some of the interesting artifacts you find while doing primary and ancillary research for a project such as this are not only the supporting data for your story, but the roadblocks and erroneous information that you find.  People make mistakes, and records are kept in error as a result of those mistakes.  I guess it could frustrate the amateur researchers such as myself, but in reality, I find it rather interesting and fun.  I like finding these little "nuggets" of fact and keeps the work engaging.

Last week, while researching a letter that JWD wrote in April of 1862, he made a reference to John H. Derr.  Though I haven't fleshed this out yet, I assume that most of the Derr's in the Deep Creek area around where JWD lived were related in some way.  Census Records for the Barry Township area only show Derr's in the area around 1830, or so, and before that time in the 1820 Census Records, there is no mention of the Derr's.  In discussions with my father, he remembers our relatives saying that the family moved from the Philadelphia area to Schuylkill county around the 1830s.  So, I will use that as a reference point as well as a rationale for why I think the JWD and John H. Derr were somehow related.  I suspect they were cousins.

John H. Derr was a Corporal in Company D of the 48th and was a superior to JWD.  In prior blogs, I mentioned the pension affidavit of Levi Derr, JWD's cousin, also a Corporal in Company D of the 48th.  So, I believe that John had two cousins who were in his company serving as Corporals.

While doing research, I saw that John H. Derr died on January 2nd, 1863 and was buried in Washington, DC at what was called, the Military Asylum Cemetery (now called the Old Soldiers Home National Cemetery).  It is located on the grounds of the Old Soldiers Home in Washington DC, the same location that houses the summer cottage frequented by President Lincoln during hot and humid summer months in Washington.  This cemetery was one of the first used by the country during the war and is has over 14,000 union dead buried there.

I continued researching information about both JWD and John H. Derr utilizing the Pennsylvania State Archives online ARIAS system to look at soldier's service cards (3x5 index cards typed up and available online).  There I found a discrepancy....or really... an error.   See the cards below:

Well....John W. Derr did not die in 1863 and was not a Corporal as this card indicates....Also, you'll see the references to the death date, death location, and the reference to his "Rolls give initial: H".  Also, in JWD's discharge papers his description is closer to that referenced in the card below....his height being 5' 8" not 5' 11".      Also notice the remarks regarding his re-enlistment at Tennessee in 1864.   

And finally......the definitive indicators:

Headstone of John H. Derr at the Old Soldiers Home National Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Headstone of John W. Derr at St John's (Kimmel's) Cemetery, Barry, Pennsylvania.

I will come back to this story sometime in the future as I have decided that I would like to go to the gravesite of John H. Derr here in the Washington DC area.  I suspect that after he died and was buried here, that there is little chance that his family had the time, money or transportation to get to Washington, DC.  I think it would be fitting and respectful to be the first relative to visit his final resting place, nearly 150 years after his death in the service of his country.

Jim D.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Letter #1 -- Camp Curtin - September 3rd 1861

This is the beginning of the letter trail.  This first letter written by John W. Derr to his family on September 3rd, 1861 after his arrival at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Below, you will find a copy of the original letter with the corresponding envelope.  Family lore says that John had but the equivalent of a 3rd grade education.  John's limited education, along with his "Pennsylvania German (Dutch)" heritage gave me a challenge in translating the words and their meaning.  The letters display spelling errors, grammatical errors as well as local colloquialisms which I will try to put into context for the period, locality and the man.


                                                                                                            September 3, 1861
My Dear Father,
            I take my pencil in hand to write a few lines to you to let you know that I made up my mind to go and fight for our country and I let you know that I am in Harrisburg now and I like it very good.  And I wish you wouldn’t think hard of me that I left Deep Creek for I was tired of it long ago and I let you know that we made our home in Camp Curtin.
                                                                        For the Union, now and forever,
                                                                                    John W. Derr                                                     

Camp Curtin, named for Governor Andrew Curtin, was one of  the Union’s “boot camps” during the Civil War.  From 1861 to 1865, more than 300,000 Union soldiers were processed and trained for the Civil War at this camp in Harrisburg which is now bordered by the current landmarks of Fifth Street, the railroad tracks next to the Farm Show Building, Maclay Street, and Reeds Lane (from a speech by Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed, November 11, 1990).

My interpretation of this letter is that JWD, a 22 year old man with few prospects living at home with his parents and siblings, decided to enlist in the army to participate in an adventure of a lifetime.  By reading the letters, pension affidavits and other documents, I believe he was one of many friends who did the same thing.   This letter is part information as well as an apology to his parents, who were probably worried about him.   At first, I thought that this "stunt" of his was a particularly cruel and thoughtless act, given the worry it must have caused his parents.  Now I think that maybe his parents knew where he was and what he was doing.  Since many of his friends joined the Union army at the same time, that area of the Deep Creek, must have been abuzz with talk about...."where did all the boys go"?  

JWD made his way to Pottsville, Pennsylvania in August of 1861 in order to enlist in the Army and to be transported to a mustering area....Camp Curtin in Harrisburg.  Camp Curtin is where the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was formed and from where JWD's Civil War adventure began.  I often wonder what he thought of his journey....the new experiences he had.  For example....this was probably the furthest he had ever been from home (Pottsville)....this was probably the first train he rode....this was probably the largest grouping of people he had ever seen.  Pretty gutsy for a dirt farmer in the heart of Pennsylvania.

I hope you enjoy this first letter.....

Jim D.