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