We are pleased to present below the First Honorable Mention of our Civil War Family Story essay contest. The contest ran in the summer and the winners were announced in the fall print newsletter, which was mailed to MHS members last week. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners, and two Honorable Mentions, will appear on the blog throughout the week. Congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to all the entrants. Judging was made difficult given the volume and high quality of the submissions.
by Elva Mathiesen, Providence, Rhode Island
I’ve long known that two great-great-uncles of mine from Maine, Lewis and John Jordan, were killed in the Civil War.
In 1990 I learned that letters they wrote still existed and began a journey of discovery, meeting relatives in California and obtaining from them copies of the letters.
With all these letters reunited for the first time in three generations, I wondered what they would reveal.
They preserve a family conversation about the War. Most of the letters were from Lewis and John to their youngest brother, Benjamin, and their mother; others were between John and Lewis, and several were from an uncle.
Their conversation was cut off all too soon. John, in the Maine Sharpshooters (attached to the Second U.S. Sharpshooter Regiment as Company D), was killed during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lewis, in the 9th Maine Regiment, Company G, died a year later in the battle of Morris Island.
Eighteen-year-old Benjamin wanted to join up too, but his mother wouldn’t let him. “I gave two of my sons to the War,” she said, “and I’m not going to give the third.”
So Benjamin became the faithful correspondent of his brothers, and, after they died, the keeper of their diaries, letters, photographs, and memories.
Benjamin eventually married and had two children, Bertha and Basil. In 1898, now widowed, he and his children moved from Skowhegan to Los Angeles.
Benjamin divided his memorabilia between his children. Basil, my grandfather, got most of the photographs, including a portrait of John (posing proudly with his gun), and Lewis’s Civil War diary. Bertha got all the letters, which she divided among her three daughters, and unfortunately censored, even cutting out half a page from one. What John wrote on there, front and back, is lost forever.
Yet much has been found, as well. Lewis and John Jordan are not just names now—I know their stories. John, the younger, was a natural reporter, judging from his account of a train accident in which he was injured. He spent six weeks recuperating in an Army hospital in Washington, D.C., where he loved exploring the city and museums. Clearly, this boy wasn’t going back to Ripley. Had he lived, he might have become a writer for big-city newspapers or magazines.
Lewis enlisted with friends from Ripley and the surrounding area, and sent home reports of the “Ripley Boys” in every letter. Like John he was fascinated with all he saw on his travels but longed for home. Not as literate as John, he spelled words just as they sounded to him. In his letters I hear the Maine accent and expressions of my grandfather.
Documents are fragile; history is capricious. A chance conversation, and the scattered parts of Lewis’s and John’s stories were reunited; Bertha’s prudery, and important information may have been lost.
Lewis and John have become real people to me. But there’s a price to be paid: knowing them now as I do, I regret their loss even more keenly.