“This Old Patriot Stood His Ground”

In 1864, George Blessing, “Hero of Highland,” bravely battled Confederate raiders on his farm near Wolfsville, Frederick County, Maryland, but the real man and his deeds became almost unrecognizable in popular retellings.

chasing-the-myth-of-confederate-golds-featured-photo
Still image courtesy of the History Channel.

John Caleb Leatherman (1852-1952), who was a child during the Civil War and a neighbor of the man who would earn the sobriquet “Hero of Highland,” told a Hagerstown Daily Mail reporter in 1950, ​”Boy, that ol’ George Blessing was a spunky one. Those Rebels were trying to get a hold of all the horses they could. When [my] Father heard about it, he took his horses up into Pennsylvania. Not George Blessing—he just stood pat on his own farm there.”

A barnyard shootout at Blessing’s Highland Farm took place on 9 July, 1864, the same day that the Battle of Monocacy was fought only a few miles away on the outskirts of Frederick City. At the end of that month, the Frederick Examiner ran a letter to the editor, suggesting “the raising of a sum, by the contributions of Union men … for the purpose of procuring a medal, with the appropriate device and inscription, to commemorate [Blessing’s] noble feats of that occasion.”

5885.1
Frederick Examiner, 27 July, 1864.

In the years that followed, the grandiosity of the tale and the pious nature of the hero was escalated by his niece, the writer Nellie Blessing Eyster, who published grandiose versions in both a noted ladies magazine and in her 1867 novel  Chincapin CharlieIn the latter, she called him “one of Nature’s noblemen,” wrote that he was possessed of a “strange power” from “living so close to Jesus,” and that as he was “thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ’76, loving the government for which his fathers died, next to the God whom he so devoutly worshipped … he defended his home from what he sacredly believed an unrighteous invasion.”

Continue reading ““This Old Patriot Stood His Ground””

“All Tombs Around Are in Its Splendor Lost”

The remarkable gothic revival, self-designed memorial to Victorian teenage paragon Charlotte Canda was a much-visited tourist attraction during the Victorian age.

12750966893_41fc754b74_o
Monument to Charlotte Canda, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. One half of a stereoscopic card, circa 1880. “Published by E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., Emporium of American and Foreign Stereoscopic views, chromos, albums, Magic Lanterns, and slides, 591 Broadway, opposite Metropolitan Hotel, New York.” Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Charlotte Canda (3 Feb., 1828-3 Feb., 1845) was the daughter of Frenchman Charles Francis A. Canda (1792-1866), of Amiens, Somme, Picardie, and Adele Louisa Theriott (1804-1871), whom he wed 10 May, 1824.

Charlotte’s mother’s ancestors were early French settlers of New York. Adele was the daughter of Gabriel L. Theriott and sister of Augustus B. Theriott (1808 – 1866), who inherited their father’s dry-goods business circa 1823 when he was still a teenager.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 9.34.20 PM
New York Times, February 11, 1886.

It has been put forth that Charlotte’s father was an officer in Napoleon’s army and that he was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, after which he sailed for America. However, this is likely untrue. There was a Canda in the Battle of Waterloo, which occurred in June 1815, but that man was Charles’s brother, Louis-Joseph-Florimond Canda, who served many years as an officer in the French army, married Angeline, daughter of the Marquis De Balbi-Piovera from Genoa, immigrated to the United States, was an early settler of Chicago, and died there in 1886. The purported military backstories of both Candas are told almost identically in varying sources, indicating that Charles and Florimond have been conflated.

Continue reading ““All Tombs Around Are in Its Splendor Lost””

All Hallows is Here Again

Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen,
Voices whisper in the trees, “Tonight is Halloween!” —Dexter Kozen

32202382682_bf9ff8102b_o
A Halloween party in the 1960s. Collection unknown.
c921331072117bea9ccff26add2a0fc5
This image was taken in Urnäsch, Switzerland, in 1944. Collection unknown.
5126490908_fba00ce15c_o.jpg
Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., visit their father in the White House Oval Office, 1963. Courtesy John F. Kennedy Library.

Continue reading “All Hallows is Here Again”

Official Dark Boots

How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.

union161 2
A Union soldier with his hardtack, salted pork, gun, and coffee pot, known as a “mucket.” Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.

(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)

After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.

Continue reading “Official Dark Boots”

A Mirror Image of Mother

When Hannah McCracken Kelly died in 1855, she left two small children who would retain no memory of her and possess no photographic image other than this postmortem daguerreotype.

6973745659_6e44affef8_h
A 6th-plate, hand-tinted daguerreotype of “Hannah McCracken Kelly, our mother, taken after her death.” Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Hannah B. McCracken was the daughter of John and Mary McCracken (or Mecracken), who farmed in Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania, during the early 19th Century. Named after the “Great Compromiser” U.S. Senator Henry Clay (1777-1852), the town is located on the line of the Cumberland Road which forms its Main Street. Claysville is 18 miles east of Wheeling, West Virginia, and 10 miles west of Washington, Pennsylvania. The town was laid out in 1817 and remained unincorporated until 1832.

John McCracken was born about 1795 in Pennsylvania and died 28 December, 1865, in Claysville. His wife, Mary, the daughter of Samuel Caldwell of Buffalo Township, was born in about 1797 and died 4 August, 1878. The couple married in Washington County on 30 December, 1820. They are buried together in the old Purviance Cemetery, Claysville.

bruce-77
Claysville S-Bridge, built in 1815. The McCrackens and Kellys would have known this view. Photograph by John Kennedy Lacock and Ernest K. Weller, 1910.

Continue reading “A Mirror Image of Mother”

A Haunting of My Own

Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.

30600890978_01272df63e_h
St. Paul’s Lutheran Cemetery, Myersville, Maryland.

This Halloween, I will be the guest speaker of the Myersville-Wolfsville Area Historical Society, presenting on local ghosts and paranormal phenomenon. Whilst this part of Maryland is rich in folkloric creatures such as a flying monster called the Snallygaster, or the Veiled Lady—a sort of banshee who plagued the environs of South Mountain—neither these nor other similar tales are particularly believable or verifiable.

I will stretch as far afield as Antietam and Gettysburg for parts of my lecture, but one paranormal story, at least, will be from Myersville, and it is my own. I share it now knowing it could be as figmental as the ghostly forms that once circled above Frederick’s Rose Hill Manor, or the Christmas Eve Phantom Flutist of Emmitsburg, who purportedly plays, as he did in life, over his dead father’s grave.

The setting for this tale is the cemetery of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, directly across Main Street from my home.

Continue reading “A Haunting of My Own”

Is the Past More Than Prologue?

In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.

IMG_8155
Sean Byrne at Pry House Field Hospital Museum, Keedysville, Maryland, June 2018.

On Tuesday, 16 September, 1862, farmer Phillip Pry, Jr., and his wife Elizabeth, née Cost, found that the Civil War was standing on their doorstep. Since the summer of 1844, the couple had dwelt happily in their imposing home, high on a hill, which Phillip and his brother Samuel had built on their father’s land. The road between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg ran along the foot of the hill, and as Philip and Elizabeth could see from their front porch, it had become an artery for the Confederate war machine. Soldiers in grey, wagons, armaments, ambulances, horses—for a day and night they moved past the Prys’ house in a kaleidoscope of pending misadventure.

IMG_7191
Philip and Elizabeth Cost Pry, circa 1868. Courtesy Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

The next day, the road was crammed with soldiers in blue trundling along with the Union Army’s horses, vehicles, and ordnance. They were headed to attack the Confederacy at Sharpsburg—a bloodbath now known as the Battle of Antietam. Shortly, the Prys’ home would be commandeered as a headquarters and a field hospital by no less than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. From that moment, the Prys’ bucolic life on the hill was over.

Continue reading “Is the Past More Than Prologue?”