Indelible Memories: Mid-Maryland Children and the Civil War

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Handpainted carte de visite of “Little Willie, Uncle George and Aunt Emma’s son,” likely taken between 1860-1863. Many Mid-Maryland children of this generation witnessed the war and carried these memories well into the 20th Century. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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Twelve-year-old Edward Black (1853–1872) had his hand and arm shattered by an exploding shell whilst serving as a Union drummer boy. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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, 1948When 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.

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John Leatherman’s Civil War Memories

“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.”

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John C. Leatherman (1852-1952) and his first wife Susan Rebecca Grossnickle Leatherman (1852-1909).

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 District (Myersville, Wolfsville, Ellerton, Harmony, Jerusalem, Pleasant Walk, 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.

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John’s father, Elder George Leatherman.

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.”

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In His Own Words: Peter Recher’s Immigration to America

“I am presently living with Hans Hemmig and have taken service with a shoemaker for one month. He promised to pay me £10.”

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Jerusalem Cemetery, Myersville, Maryland. Photo by the author.

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“There Lived an Old Man in Our Little Place”

Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”

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Main Street and Wolfsville Road, Myersville, Maryland, circa 1905. Courtesy Myersville and Wolfsville Area Historical Society.

Myersville—Emphasizing the need for lights in the streets of Myersville, there was a stoning encounter on Saturday night, when Robert J. Ridgely, a school teacher at Burkittsville and a resident of Myersville, was stoned by four or five young men of the town. Reports have it that Mr. Ridgely stoned back, but as the teacher could not be located this morning, this could not be verified.

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Frederick News, 6 October, 1915

Mr. Ridgley has an ugly cut over one eye, which bled profusely, and Wilber Shepley, one of those in the in the party stoning Mr. Ridgley, also has a cut, probably inflicted by a stone, although one report has it that Mr. Shepley sustained the cut by striking a telephone pole, while running.

“The stoning incident has aroused a number of people in the town, and it is stated that there is a stronger sentiment for electric lights, many residents claiming the affair would not have happened had the town been well lighted.”

The victim in this article, Robert Johnson Ridgley was born in Myersville in January 1867 to William Worth Ridgley (1822-1901) and his wife Martha Matilda Johnson (1834-1920). (Note: The family name is spelled variously as Ridgely, Ridgeley, and Ridgley. For consistency only, I am using the latter.) William Ridgley was well-known in the area for his success as a farmer although he was blind. His tenacity and determination were inherited by his son.

As an adult, Robert Ridgley received a scholarship from the Maryland State Normal School in Baltimore, later rechristened Towson University, starting his studies in September 1895. Before that, he was a teacher at Loys Public School. After his father’s death, he lived with his mother and a servant, Susan Shank, the latter of whom worked for Ridgley until at least until 1940. Keeping a long-term, live-in servant of this type is a positive testimony to Ridgely’s character, which was sometimes maligned by his fellow Myersvillians.

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