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From The Trenches
Issue: 38-2

 

Ancestors whispering

 

I often wonder what causes people's fascination with the Civil War. Some will recall that it was a battlefield visit in their youth that got them started. For some, it was a grade school history teacher who lit the fire. Others are generational legacies: Their fathers were passionately interested in the war, and it rubbed off. Some stories are stranger. The publisher, for instance, recalls having childhood dreams about pitched battles between men clad in blue and gray long before he knew what the Civil War was. (I know. Weird.)

And some simply have no idea. They only know that when they discovered the Civil War, they somehow felt as though they'd come home.

Ron Cleveland, author of an article in this issue, was born and raised in Michigan, far from any battlefields and surrounded by people who might say, "The Civil what?" He developed an abiding fascination with the conflict due to a wartime letter given to him by his grandmother. That simple beginning spurred the twin habits of collecting and relic hunting, only he had to travel far greater distances than most in those pursuits.

One of the highlights of Ron's collecting career has been the acquisition of a Chew's Battery cannon captured in October 1864 by Custer's men at Tom's Brook, Virginia. (Can't you just hear it? "You bought a what from the Civil what?") In the years since, he has faithfully trundled the cannon south for shows and reenactments, and it has served as the opening "boom!" for several events.

Invariably, on the way to or from the events --- and often both --- he stops at Tom's Brook to relic hunt. The place seems to call to him, which seems perfectly understandable. That was where his cannon was captured.

All this long-distance traveling and cannon-trundling doesn't mean he's quit his day job. He's a second-generation jeweler, which is what led to what recently happened.

He had a strand of pearls restrung for me. These are not important, boulder-size pearls, but they're all I have from my deceased Aunt Jean and are precious to me. The restrung pearls arrived in the mail, I called to thank him, and the conversation turned to genealogy. He said with some chagrin that he'd always hoped to find a Civil War soldier in his family tree, but all the Cleveland men of those years were either too old or too young to serve.

We got off the phone, and with Aunt Jean's pearls next to the computer, I began to climb his family tree. Rather than go up the paternal Cleveland line, I went for a maternal branch, which led straight back to a two-greats-grandfather who fought with Michigan infantry. Then I found that soldier's brother, who also fought with Michigan infantry and was wounded at Chancellorsville.

By that time I was texting Ron with Please call.

The response came: With client.

Then I found another brother. Minutes after that I was staring at my screen, utterly dumbfounded.

This couldn't wait. Or, more accurately, I couldn't wait, for no one has ever accused me of patience. I texted again: Kill client. Bury body. Call.

A message came back: Burying body. Calling.

The phone rang, and I asked, "Does the name Leander mean anything to you?"

"Yes. That's what got me started decades ago with the Civil War. My grandmother gave me a wartime letter written by a Leander. I still have it. Who is he?"

"Your two-greats-grandfather in a maternal line --- Leander Cotton, 22nd Michigan. His brother Jay was in the 1st Michigan Cavalry and was with Custer at Tom's Brook when your cannon was captured."

"What?"

Now let me say that I don't believe in seances, and I'm pretty sure the reason the planchette moves across a Ouija board is the living and breathing players.

But sometimes I wonder if our ancestors speak to us. Not in a spooky-ooky ghosty way but in a generational DNA way. Honestly, I can't even pretend to know how it works. I only know that it does. (Do what I do enough and you too will occasionally feel that time is the only thing that keeps everything from happening all at once.)

Anyway, they talk, and it's up to us to listen. And if we don't hear them right away (they are very patient), sooner or later, they shout.

This was an instance of one shouting. Two, actually. Aunt Jean's much-loved pearls, restrung thanks to Ron, were beside my computer as I found Ron's ancestor's undeniable presence where Ron's Civil War cannon was captured.

And no, I don't know where he buried the client's body.

--- Ed.

 


 




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