When James Hard died on 12 March, 1953, in Rochester, New York, the final firsthand battle memories from U.S. Civil War were forever lost. Hard was the last verified soldier on either side of the conflict who actively fought—in his case, as a teenaged infantryman in the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment—at First Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.
There were others still alive, however, such as John Caleb Leatherman, who were children and teens during the war years. In Maryland’s Frederick and Washington Counties, and just across the Potomac in West Virginia’s Shepherdstown, these elders possessed indelible memories of South Mountain, Antietam, or Monocacy lain down through civilian, juvenile lenses.
One example was Jacob E. Eavey. On 15 August, 1948, he died in the Guildford Nursing Home in Boonsboro at age 97 after a professional life spent running a grocery shop at 29 North Main Street, Keedysville. Eavey was the son of Samuel Eavey (1828-1911) and Catherine Ecker (1828-1868) and was born in Porterstown on 21 October, 1850. He would marry Clementine Eugenia Keedy (1850-1929) and father five daughters and one son.
Like John Leatherman, Eavey kept vivid memories of 16 September, 1862. Whilst John spent the 16th in Middletown, helping his mother nurse wounded soldiers from the previous day’s fighting, 12-year-old Jacob spent it “sitting on a fence beside the road, watching the soldiers striding down South Mountain” on their way to meet their individual destinies at the Battle of Antietam, reported the Hagerstown Daily Herald of 16 August, 1948. When fighting kicked off at Sharpsburg on the 17th, Eavey stood near his parent’s smokehouse in Porterstown, just to the east of Sharpsburg, as a Rebel shell tore through and wrecked the building but spared his life.
“Young John sat fascinated all day, watching the trajectories of shells above the trees of the mountain, followed by the little puffs of smoke that marked their targets.”
Just short of his 97th birthday, in May 1950, John Caleb Leatherman spoke to reporter Betty Sullivan from the Hagerstown Daily Mail about his life and boyhood memories of the Union blue and Confederate grey armies’ descent on Frederick County, Maryland. The interview he gave is a boon for historians, as firsthand accounts from the Jackson and Catoctin districts—including Myersville, Wolfsville, Ellerton, Harmony, Jerusalem, Pleasant Walk, Highland, and Church Hill—are almost nonexistent. I recounted two of these pertaining to George Blessing, “Hero of Highland,” in a previous article, and Leatherman’s secondhand testimony was also integral to that reportage, as the Leathermans and Blessings knew each other well.
John Leatherman was born 15 December, 1852, in Harmony (also known for a time as Beallsville)—a nascent town that never fully took root. Today, it is a series of farms and old buildings set along Harmony Road. John was the son of farmer George Leatherman (1827-1907) and his wife, Rebecca Elizabeth Johnson (1827-1908), who married 16 December, 1847. The 1860 Census records that George Leatherman’s farm was worth more than $8,500 and his personal estate more than $4,000—some $360,000 in today’s dollars. At that time, the family had six children, the oldest of whom, Mary (b. 1848) was enumerated as deaf and mute.
Although he was listed in several Union draft registers of the Jackson District, it’s likely that Leatherman, who was in his 30s during the war, would have opposed serving. He was a devoted member of the Brethren, a pacifist German Baptist sect also known as the Dunkards, was elected to the clergy of the Grossnickle Meeting House in 1865, and would become a church elder in 1880. In an earlier article about Robert Ridgley, the longhaired still-breaker of Myersville, I wrote that Ridgley wanted to be buried near Leatherman, of whom he said, “I feel that I owe practically all from a spiritual standpoint to this Grand Good Man.”
This glorious colorization by Sanna Dullaway returns vividly to life Mary White Avery Forbes, a 19th Century denizen of Westborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts. Her birth was recorded on 12 March, 1813, in Roxbury, to William White (1779-1848) and his wife Nancy Avery (1783–1865). In Mary’s time, Roxbury was already an ancient settlement first colonized by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630; it is now one of the 23 official neighborhoods of Boston.
Mary’s future husband, Daniel Hall Forbes, born 5 September, 1808, in Westborough, was the son of Jonathan Forbes (1775-1861) and Esther Chamberlain (1770-1867). According to the 1892 Forbes and Forebush Genealogy: The Descendants of Daniel Forbush, Jonathan Forbes “always resided in the Forbes homestead, West Main Street…. He taught school when a young man. He was a captain as early as 1813, when he was elected deacon of the Evangelical Church, holding the latter office 48 years. He held most of the town offices and was a natural leader in church and town affairs. It is said he was always chairman of every committee in which he served.” The genealogy also notes, “His children, Susannah, Julia, Jonathan, Jr., and Daniel were all baptized Oct. 29, 1808.”
The group baptism was a sign of commitment to Christianity that the Forbes family kept alive for multiple generations. When he died more than four decades later, Daniel, the month-old infant christened that day, would leave hundreds of dollars to missionary societies. His daughter would die in a far away country, serving God’s cause.
“I am presently living with Hans Hemmig and have taken service with a shoemaker for one month. He promised to pay me £10.”
On 5 October, 1722, in Ziefen, Canton of Basil-Land, Switzerland, a healthy male infant was born and christened Peter Recher. Either before his birth or slightly thereafter, his Anabaptist father, Martin Recher IV (1692-1760), was exiled from the canton. This was probably at the declaration of the Anabaptist Bureau, which was, in 1699, created to capture and banish members of the then-heretical group now known as Mennonites. Anabaptists believed that a public confession of sin and faith followed by an adult baptism was required and that infant baptisms were meaningless because babies were incapable of choosing baptism freely. Little Peter may not have seen his father until 1730, when Martin was allowed to return from exile in Oberdiessbach, Canton Bern, after his unorthodox beliefs were either pardoned or abandoned.
Martin Recher, and probably also his wife, Elizabeth Rudy (1690-1748), were lacemakers. The desire for lace, ribbons, trim, and bows was strong, but lacemakers often struggled to profit from the detailed, time-consuming craft. The Rechers had a number of children, so providing for them was probably always challenging. However, the family did have a solid home, built in 1610 by an earlier generation. It was more than 110 years old when Peter was born, and now, almost 300 years later, it is still lived in by modern-day Rechers.
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.
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.”
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 Charlie. In 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.”
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.
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.
“Some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so.”
Myersville, July 10th, 1852
I hope you will not think hard of me for thus approaching you so unexpectedly, as my mind has bin [sic] for some time a good deal taken up with you in regard to coming to see you in order to have some private conversations with you, not knowing at all whether my company would be agreeable or not, but take this plan of ascertaining something about the state of your mind.
Dear Emma, you are well acquainted with me and know all about my situation. You know that I have bin unfortunate in the loss of a very dear and kind companion, one in who my whole soul delighted to honor and respect. But she has gone I trust from a world of trouble and sorrow to one of happiness and joy, and I can have no more comfort nor consolation from her anymore, only with a firm hope and expectation of meeting her again in those blissful regions where parting shall be no more. I can do no more than to respect her memory, which I will ever do.
We read in the Bible that it is not good for man to be alone. I have realized that to be a very true saying indeed. I was once as happy as any person could be in the enjoyment in the company of my much-lamented Mary, but how different my case. With all I have I have no enjoyment & some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so, although I do not wish to do so for some time yet. But I have come to the conclusion to do so providing I can suit myself. I now feel like a lost sheep, lonely and without anyone to cheer me or comfort me, and if it was not for the comforts and the consolations of religion, I would often times have to despair in sorrow. But thanks be to God that he still comforts and consoles me. I find that I can never be happy again in this world without fixing my affection on one again in who I am satisfied will be a kind companion to me, and dear Emeline, you appear to the only one I can have any idea of going to see at the present and of fixing my affection upon.
The opulent mat surrounding this daguerreotype would draw attention from the portrait of a lesser subject, but not the ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed Nathaniel Amory Tucker, then aged 39. Blessed with money and looks, one of his obituaries described him as “an officer and a gentleman of much talent and geniality of wit.” Frère Quevillion, a Catholic priest who knew him well, called Tucker “a rich [man] in every sense.”
Tucker was the son of Catherine Hay Geyer (1778-1869), who married merchant Nathaniel Tucker (1775-1857) on 8 July, 1802, in Boston. The Geyers were well-moneyed. Before the Revolution, Catherine’s father—Nathaniel’s grandfather—Friedrich Geyer (1743-1841), had inherited an estate worth £1,000. The family name was originally Von Geyer and the family was “a late immigrant hither, and the tradition was [that] he was of a good German family,” reports English origins of New England families, Second series, Vol. I.
Frederick Geyer married Nathaniel’s grandmother Susanna Ingraham (1750-1796) on 30 April, 1767. In 1778, just before the birth of his daughter Catherine, Geyer—an ardent British royalist—was exiled and his property sequestered.
In the years that followed, the Geyers were based in London. The family had grown to include one son and five daughters, the latter of whom were undoubtedly raised to be prominent ladies of good society. The eldest, Mary Anne (1774-1814), married Andrew (1763-1841), the son of Jonathan Belcher, first Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, on 7 September, 1792. When Catherine’s younger sister Nancy Geyer married Rufus G. Amory on 13 February, 1794, a guest at the wedding was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, father of the future Queen Victoria, who was in Boston on his way to Halifax.
My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved into one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home.
Recently, and quite serendipitously, I visited Mount Olivet Cemetery—the preeminent burial grounds of Frederick County, Maryland. Francis Scott Key, who in 1812 wrote the poem that became the National Anthem, reposes there. Also interred at Mount Olivet are prosperous Victorians and Edwardians, Colonial and Federal-era area residents moved from their original gravesites in small family plots and cemeteries around the county, and Civil War soldiers who fought for the Confederacy but breathed their last as Union captives.
It was Confederate Memorial Day, a solemn remembrance of which I was unaware when a friend and I decided to visit the cemetery. We found Mount Olivet’s Confederate graves bedecked with flags. Reenactors laid wreaths after a small, bagpipe-led parade.
My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved on one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home. My curiosity propelled by his unusual—and unlikely—name, I decided to search for more about Private Pitts.