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 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.
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.
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.”
Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.
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.
Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”
“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.
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.