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.