From the TLDR Series.
Letters From Dead Folks.
Father and Mother would have been so very proud.
Search engine synapses conjure some magical brews on occasion. Up from the flotsam came a Maine Archives site under some Civil War related query, and for whatever reason captured my attention. I’ve learned to listen to myself, I’m usually not too far off. This was a live one. It sounded boring, but I’ve been known to enjoy some pretty boring stuff.
Maine Adjutant General slash Civil War Incoming Correspondence slash Maine Reg’t 5 dash 1861.
That’s me! I thought. Great (X3) Uncle Charlie was in the 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry.
28 pages each full of 20 or so scans of sloppily written missives in cursive pen & ink. All boring.
Colonel Dunnell reports on the condition of the Regiment.
Colonel Dunnell inquires about a Chaplain for the Regiment.
Colonel Dunnell inquires about hats and shoes.
Colonel Dunnell inquires about pay for the Regiment.
Too boring. Stuffy messy Military Officer Jargon. Ciphering out scribbles like some history class hieroglyphics homework word game with no real prize. My eyes wanted to sleep instead. No more please. Maybe there’s a magic translator app for 19th Century Military Longhand Hen Scratch.
I pressed on. Made a fresh coffee and pushed the little dollhouse tea party sized cup button. High test.
Scanning titles only, easier reading but drier as they went. Chaffing already.
Captain Swagger recommends his nephew Corporal Swagger for promotion.
Major Mope and Sergeant Skeet request commission to a different Regiment.
Someone recommends Doctor Quack for Surgeon.
Someone recommends Doctor Thumbs for Surgeon.
Lieutenant Boots reports incompetence of both Quack and Thumbs.
Major Malt and Sergeant Swill request transfer to another Regiment.
(The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
The Surgeon battle goes back and forth for pages and months, I doubt the 5th Maine ever got a capable Doctor. Uncle Charlie mentioned in his letters that their Surgeon had never done anyone any good. That’s pretty cold, and most likely true. Medicine in general was still fairly medieval.
Unrest was rampant in the 5th, and probably most other Regiments. Soldiers doubted the abilities and conviction of many Officers. Liquor was a scourge, Soldiers and Officers alike would drink themselves to utter uselessness.
Sixteen painful pages later was a letter from Charlie. Boom. Just like that. My eyes opened all the way.
Charles H. Dean of Company G requests his papers for recruiting duty.
Simply seeing his name makes it all worth the effort. That’s what I was apparently seeking, with help from some subliminal prodding and steering. It all boils down to curiosity. Charlie’s letter is easy to read, my brain is familiar with his careful script. August of 1862, he’s already a battle seasoned Veteran. He’s home in Buxton on Recruiting Duty, a swell break I’m sure after a year and a half in Virginia. He has his orders, but no enrollment forms and such. Please advise.
It’s just another bland military request, but it’s Uncle Charlie, so my heart thumps a bit harder while I read it several times over, noting every curl and swirl of his pen. I picture him writing it. I feel his blood in my veins. I think about the odds of seeing his name in a short list of letters from a Regiment of over 1000 men. I consider the forces that dragged me here to find him, 16 hard pages into the middle of nowhere. I smile though I’m alone. My family sleeps like normal folks do but I’m not done. I’m on a Mission.
Twelve pages to go with the 5th Maine. I had to know. What were the odds that Charlie’s name would pop up again? Would they ever get a Surgeon? Did all of those disgruntled Officers get their wish and get out? You’ll have to read my book one day. I’ll tell you what though, Charlie did come up again. Four more times. Not Charlie’s letters, but letters about him, even better.
The Good Stuff. Things that I did not previously know about. All 1863.
Captain Henry G. Thomas recommends Charles H. Dean for commission in a Colored Regiment.
Captain Sawyer recommends Charles H. Dean for promotion.
Mark Dunnell and Josiah Drummond recommend Charles H. Dean for promotion.
Mark Dunnell and Josiah Drummond recommend Charles H. Dean for Lieutenant in the Colored Troops.
Now I was wide awake again with a turbo shot of adrenaline.
Wonderfully nice letters proving what I already knew in my heart, that Uncle Charlie was the best kind of Soldier. Setting a fine example as a natural leader. This explains why he was sent home to Buxton on recruiting duty, as a Private no less. Special reward for good performance. Most Grunts weren’t getting sent home at all, they’d be lucky to ever make it back. Charlie was home between battles eating Mother’s cooking and sleeping in his own bed, things he had lately only known in his dreams. I would of course have to do the research on the Officers that were praising him, I like to know a little bit about everyone. We’re all kin. Here’s a few words from each.
“Dean served in my Company G 5th Maine Volunteers. While I commanded the Company I promoted him from Private to Corporal for bravery and good conduct in the 1st Bull Run. I always found him a good Soldier, prompt, subordinate and temperate.”
Kind words that will bring color to a Mother’s cheeks, perhaps a patriotic teardrop. They make a 3rd Great Nephew feel pretty swell. Closer to him, somehow. Proud enough to flutter my stomach.
This was from his first Captain in G Company, Henry Goddard Thomas.
A local boy, born in Portland. Studied Law at Amherst, admitted to the bar just before the War.
The good Captain was also destined for advancement, and he piled it on. Colored Regiments were forming quickly, requiring an especially solid moral character from their Officers. I’m not trying to start trouble, but it was a very different time, I think you all understand. Our Maine Boys fit the bill.
Captain Thomas soon became Colonel Thomas, 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Federal now, a giant step up. Then Colonel Thomas, 19th U.S. Colored Infantry. President Lincoln would appoint him Brigadier General of Volunteers. That’s big. President Johnson later upgraded Thomas to brevet Major General for his War efforts. General Henry would sign on with the Regular Army and serve for another quarter of a century.
Huge accomplishments, and he’s got a huge handsome headstone right in Portland at Evergreen.
From Charlie’s point of view, if he hoped to get promoted, Colonel Thomas’ blessing would certainly carry some weight. An Ace up his sleeve. A valuable ally. Hopefully his future Boss.
Next came Captain T.J. Sawyer, bumped up from 2nd Lieutenant to lead Company G upon the promotion of Captain Thomas.
“He (Dean) is thoroughly established in Company drill and discipline. Cool and brave in action, having been promoted for good behavior in Bull Run No.1 by his Captain. Although wounded in the fight he kept his place and done much to encourage his comrades. He is strictly temperate and of high moral character and I cheerfully recommend him as competent and worthy of a commission in any Reg’t and would be particularly useful and efficient in a New Regiment.”
Notice that this Captain also highlights Charles’ temperance, (basically sobriety in this context) alcohol abuse was prevalent during the War, and serious enough over the next few generations to bring National Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. Charles was a teetotaler for certain, the folks back home would support future Temperance movements, and he himself had no use for spirits. When liquor was supplied to his Unit, he would pass his ration along to a friend or tent mate. At least that’s what he wrote home to Mother and Father. I believe him. He felt that a fit and sober Union Army might have quashed the Rebellion right out of the gate, saving unfathomable carnage and grief that was yet to come. He may have been onto something.
I couldn’t find much about Captain Sawyer. He was born in Porter and he’s buried in Skowhegan.
If you’re from around here that alone will paint a pretty accurate picture of the kind of man he may have been. If Charlie’s letters shed more light on his personality, it’ll all be in my book.
Boring history, but I get pretty wrapped up in it.
These next two guys were both kind of Big Deals.
First let’s meet Colonel Mark Hill Dunnell, a Buxton Boy himself. One of the Dunnell Road Dunnells.
His father Samuel Orestes Dunnell fought in the War of 1812. Mother Achsah Hill was the daughter of Nathaniel Hill, a Revolutionary War Veteran who fought at Lexington. Mark’s uncle, Captain Joseph Dunnell Jr also fought in the War of 1812, and he married Mehitable Harmon, daughter of Major Thomas Harmon who served in George Washington’s Personal Guard. Up front.
That’s a whole big bunch of Patriots buried at the pretty Woodlawn Cemetery, above a rolling brook on a quiet back road to Groveville. The kind of DNA pool that might produce a Colonel.
Colonel Mark was a dozen years older than Charles Dean, but they would have known each other. Buxton was a boy’s whole world back in the day, they would all get to know every inch of it, every face. Life was ironically much more social in the days before social media. Hard to imagine, I know, but people just did things together. As a family, or as a whole Town, depending on the occasion. There were no strangers, only neighbors. Mark’s Aunt Mehitable Harmon was a cousin of Charles’ mother Priscilla Harmon, the families would have likely been close.
Mark Dunnell did know Charlie because he stated such in these letters, adding that Charles had come from a “poor family”, making his achievements that much more impressive. I had to chuckle to myself, I had never considered my family to be poor, but I guess it’s all relative. Poorer than the Dunnells, apparently.
Colonel Mark Dunnell is actually distant kin of mine, 6th cousins through my favorite link, Great Great Grandmother Frankie Justina Lawrence.
Dunnell was an achiever. After Colby College he studied law. In his early 30s he served in the Maine House, the Maine Senate, and as the State Superintendent of Common Schools. He had a Law Office in Portland when the Civil War erupted. He signed on as Colonel of Uncle Charlie’s unit, the 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry. After just three months and one battle, the 1st Bull Run, Colonel Dunnell was mustered out to serve as US Consul at Veracruz, Mexico. I’m not sure how it all went down, but it was a much better gig. Beach Town. No artillery necessary. After the War Dunnell moved to Minnesota and continued to pave a political path, soon in the Minnesota House and serving as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He’d move onward and upward to the US Congress for six or eight terms, and serve as delegate to the Republican National Convention.
He left behind a handsome headstone out in Minnesota as well as a more public memorial, a small Town named Dunnell in his honor.
He wrote lengthy letters in pitiful penmanship but gave Charlie solid props.
“I recommend to your notice Charles H. Dean of the 5th Maine Volunteers. He has become a veteran. He wants to be a Lieutenant in one of the Colored Regiments. I assure you he is fit for the place. More than that he deserves it. He is the kind of young man that should be encouraged. He was a poor boy, and he has secured the respect of the people at home and of his Officers in the Regiment for his good conduct and strict regard to discipline. I hope that I do not ask too many favors, and certainly I hope I have not asked so many that you cannot aid me in getting this advancement. He would make a capital Lieutenant.”
Whether written by a Colonel or a Consul, I think this letter would be a huge blessing to a poor Buxton Soldier who dreamt of leading his own squad into battle, shouting orders over the din.
There was another very similar letter on file, I assume it was addressed to a different General. Both were penned by the good Colonel Dunnell, and seconded and approved by another powerful gentleman.
Another Maine boy. Josiah Hayden Drummond, born in Winslow. A background similar to Dunnell’s, educated at Colby College, practicing law and dabbling in politics. He’d been elected to the Maine House, served as Speaker, then moved on to the State Senate. At the time of these letters he was Maine’s Attorney General. After the War he returned to the State Congress. He also has a fittingly prominent headstone at Evergreen in Portland. I’ll grab some photos next time I visit my grandmother’s resting place, she’s amid some fine company. Josiah Drummond left more legacy, he and his son formed the Drummond & Drummond law firm in 1881, and it’s alive and well today right in the shadow of Portland’s One City Center. Solid.
Solid References, Charlie had it made. Our son of a Buxton carriage painter had the Maine Attorney General, the Colonel of his Regiment, and both of his Company Captains singing his praises. Recommending him as ideal for the position he sought in the Colored Regiments, where one of those same Captains was now a take-charge Colonel on his way to even bigger things.
He was a shoo-in. He’d probably get a sharp new uniform, perhaps a shiny sword. A Soldier’s sleep is fitful, but his dreams were all good. Nothing could stop him now.
We all know better than that. Never challenge the Powers That Be.
Lots of things could stop him. My “Nothing can just be easy” mantra apparently applied back in the day. “Bad things happen to good people” also comes to mind. The Religions all have trouble selling that one. Fate, Karma, Luck, Charlie’s was up and down. I think Nature’s Balance may be a more apt analogy, Day and Night, Fire and Ice. Yin and Yang. Good Guys and Bad Guys. Eat or be Eaten. No Favorites.
I’m reminded of a favorite children’s book, one of my earliest possessions that wasn’t pre-owned.
It was called “Fortunately” by Remy Charlip. A fantastical adventure with a young lad.
My condensed, ad-libbed memory:
…Fortunately, he borrowed an airplane. Unfortunately, it exploded. Fortunately, he found a parachute. Unfortunately, there was a hole in it. Fortunately, there was a haystack below. Unfortunately, there was a protruding pitchfork…
You get the idea. Forty-some pages of back and forth. That’s how Charlie’s War effort played out.
Fortunately, Charlie proved to be courageous under fire.
Unfortunately, he was shot in the wrist during the opening battle.
Fortunately, it was merely a flesh wound and he’d make a fairly quick recovery.
Unfortunately, the Union side took a whooping at that first battle.
Fortunately, Charlie was hoping they’d swiftly retaliate with stronger leadership.
Unfortunately, there would be nothing swift about this War.
Charlie’s division wouldn’t engage with the enemy again for 8 long months, the following March. Adjusting to the downfalls of a crowded winter camp while seething over the fiasco at Bull Run. Charlie was ready for action and the 5th Maine would eventually see plenty. He fought at the battles of Eltham’s Landing, Gaines’ Mill, and Golding’s Farm once the spring fighting season started up.
That Fortune coin was flipping again, in July of 1862 Charlie got his first Golden Orders, he’d be headed back to Maine for a full 90 day stint. Buxton. All summer. Recruiting Duty. Fluff up my pillows Mother, I’m coming home.
He got a double Fortunately flip, like a kinged checker, and may not have realized it right away. He’d be absent for the next two battles and they were excellent choices to miss, Crampton’s Gap and Antietam. I’m pretty sure Antietam still holds the title belt as the Bloodiest Day in American History. Charlie was in Buxton or Portland telling wide-eyed tall kids about the Glories of the Battlefield while 20-some thousand of their would-be big brothers and cousins were bleeding out along a Maryland creek bed.
On the Union’s home turf, no less. It was truly an awful day.
Charlie had some time to spend at home with his folks and five younger siblings. Chores to catch up on, I’m certain the list was growing all the while. Charlie’s father needed prodding now and then, expressed in some of his letters home. Patching the roof beats War any day. Charlie also got to check up on his new colt that he so worried about. Just a horse, but he had high hopes for it, and horses were the cars, trucks, tractors and bikes of Charlie’s day. He put some money down on the 12 acre lot out back, he’d build his own house there one day after this was over. His dreams would now be filled with felling trees and fencing a paddock for his beloved colt. Watching the sun rise over his old family homestead.
He was still every bit a Soldier and he would smartly fulfill his duties, home or not. We were still at War. Despite the newspapers bringing bloody stories home and citizens starting to realize the possible scope of this Conflict, Charlie would make his quota and then some. His recruiting efforts were also praised in his letters of recommendation.
None of it would do an ounce of good.
Uncle Charlie was back in Virginia by the first of November. Summer sun hadn’t helped their big tent camp any, it was nastier than he remembered. Most of their camps had been used and reused to the point of unsanitary filth and contamination. Trees cleared for hundreds of yards around and every scrap of brush and branch burned on cooking fires. Clean water sources were a faded memory, rain was funneled into canteens with tent flaps. Soldiers were supposed to bathe and wash their clothes at least once a week. I don’t think that was enforced or always logistically possible. Good food was scarce. Latrines were supposed to be covered with a layer of fresh dirt every day, but that’s a crappy detail that would get neglected. Men would avoid the yuck and stray to visit every stump and fencepost in sight. Those blessed rains would turn everything to a doo-doo stew that they just couldn’t avoid. Men got sick. A lot. Farm boys that hadn’t been properly exposed to the famous diseases of childhood were now passing them around like off-color Secessionist jokes. Charlie would get mumps and measles early on. Chicken pox, smallpox, colds, fevers, diarrhea, typhoid and dysentery kept the sick bays full. Drilling, marching and a jailhouse diet kept the healthy ones lean and tired.
Charles Henry Dean made it back to the front lines in time to see battle at Fredericksburg that autumn. After another dreary winter camp the spring of 1863 would take him to Chancellorsville, and he’d spend a sobering 4th of July at Gettysburg. This same spring would see these fine letters of recommendation showing up in the right in-boxes at the perfect time. Battle hardened Charlie’s ducks were all in a row.
Fortune flipped the heavy coin again and it landed on the edge with a gasp from onlookers. Rolling in a tight eddy like water down the sink drain. Ironically sinks and a little hygiene might have saved more lost War Souls than taking away their bullets, bayonets and artillery. Fun Facts. The Coin went into the cartoon manhole cover wobble and vibrated to a stop showing Unfortunate. Sorry, Charlie.
He found himself in Sick Bay. Stricken with the Prevailing Pestilence of the Conflict, Diarrhea.
The Runs, The Flux, The Virginia Quick Step, or my personal favorite, the Tennessee Trots.
If you’re my age or so and you’ve ever prepped for a colonoscopy, you know. If you have kids or you’ve ever eaten more than six dollars’ worth of fast food tacos in one sitting, you also know what poor Uncle Charlie was going through. At first he joked in letters home that sometimes he could barely get his britches down in time, painting another vivid mental picture that’s better left unseen. Enough potty humor, I apologize for that, and he wouldn’t be laughing for long.
His didn’t go away, no matter how many ridiculous treatments they attempted. Horrible “medicines” that would never help anyone, only increase the suffering. From Sick Bay to crude tent Hospitals he’d eventually settle at Davids’ Island in New York, the Union Army’s biggest. Here Charlie would waste away with a few thousand other bedridden Would Be Heroes. They’d all receive the finest available care, but Unfortunately that amounted to making them as comfortable as possible while they slowly accepted their fate. Pitiful. Sad stuff, not just for Charlie but for close to a half a million others.
Charles Henry Dean had made his peace by the spring of 1864. Gone were the dreams of leading a squad, perhaps even a company one day. Lately he only dreamt of Heaven or Home. Dearest Mother could surely care for him as well as any of these so called Surgeons might. She may have been able to save him had she been given the chance. It was too late for him now. Charlie would write home whenever he had the strength, begging his Father to come and liberate him from this Island of the Dying.
He got his Last Wish around the first of July, father John had finally made the trip to New York, most likely by boat. Charlie got his furlough, made it back to the homestead and got to see his family and that swell colt that would grow up without him. Charlie died in his own bed a few days later. He was 28.
A sad Soldier’s story. Aren’t they all.
Not a glorious farewell, by any means. The Army records are cold and dreary.
Private Charles H. Dean. Died on furlough from Davids’ Island, NY July 13, 1864. Chronic Diarrhea.
I think of all of the possibilities where the fickle fingers of Fate could have changed his story.
His getting shot at Bull Run comes to mind, that would have earned him a Purple Heart in any of the later Wars. What if that bullet had missed his wrist and struck his liver instead? A stiff westerly wind could have made him the very first casualty from his Company, and his hometown. That might get a local Grand Army of the Republic Lodge named after you, or a monument in some nearby park.
Speaking of Bull Run, hadn’t he been promoted to Corporal? Both of his Captains had stated such, yet all records list him as Private, including his parents’ pension records. Strange. If he’d stepped down or been somehow demoted, I doubt these nice letters would exist. It’s not logical, Captain. Looks like my book will have to sort that one out, I’m overdue to read through his letters again.
That leads to my next question, and the next, it’s exponential. Probably infinite.
What became of his potential promotion? Maybe it never reached fruition but these new letters have me convinced that it would have been in the works. Nothing happens fast in the Army, perhaps the Order came down a bit too late. When they make my book into a movie, the scene will play out like this.
Rappahannock Station Virginia, November 1863
The afternoon sky looks like it wants to snow, but it’s not quite cold enough yet. The chill in the air has Soldiers gathering early around the cooking fires that will bring the evening’s meager rations.
The Fighting is close, it’s eerily quiet. No singing or laughter to lighten the mood, only the murmur of tired men and bored horses and mules with the occasional snaps and cracks of the campfires.
Riders approach from the friendly side and make their way to the Officers’ Quarters. (The nice tents on the high ground.)
It’s a Mail Rider, accompanied by a few Cavalry Soldiers for protection. Impressive, with their sabers and revolvers. Even their horses look tough. Formidable.
They do the Army two-step. A Corporal accepts the mail stack and the full attention of every Soldier in camp. They all pray for letters from home. Mail Rider has official letters for the Captain. Corporal leads him around the corner to the Captain’s tent, Soldiers are slowly jockeying for position in the letter mob. Awkward salutes and salutations as the Captain formally receives his confidential orders.
One of the big horses sniffs at a bucket of water but turns it down with a snort. No Thanks. He’ll hold out for the next river. He clumsily upsets the pail. Accidentally? It’s hard to say.
The Teamster that lugged the water gives the horse the Hairy Eyeball. Silent slander. You’re lucky you ain’t my horse, Big Fella.
The horse coolly returns his glare, he’s never lost a staredown. He lets out the softest little muffled snicker like some horse ventriloquist and it sounds just like Scooby Doo’s laugh. He’s already seen more combat than Bucket Man ever will, he fears nothing. Maybe rattlesnakes. And porcupines. But that’s it.
More saluting and hat tipping and Sir, Yes Sirs before the posse leaves, riding back the way they came.
The horses neigh and snort amongst themselves as they lope away. Bucket man grinds his teeth in disgust.
The Captain expects battle plans after such a delivery and steels himself. He returns to his tent and opens the buttons-and-string latch on a big official inter-war-office memo envelope. Inside he finds the good stuff, letters signed, sealed, waxed and stamped by some Office Brass from behind the lines.
On top is Uncle Charlie’s Promotion. His Ticket Out.
The Captain lets all of his air out with a slow sigh.
He knows Charles Dean well, they’ve fought together more than once. He even penned for him a letter of recommendation a while back. It’s rewarding to know that the System has worked, this sharp young Soldier will get his chance to prove himself. Would have, anyway.
He reaches for his pipe and a twig to light it with. He puffs it to life and pauses the world for a few seconds as he recalls the last time he saw Charlie. Weeks, perhaps months ago now.
(Insert wiggly screen Flashback)
Early summer. Poor Charles looks just a shade better than a corpse as they stretcher him into the ambulance wagon for a long bumpy ride to some Hospital further north.
(Unwiggle. Yup, that was it.)
He hadn’t returned, no one had expected him to. Those Hospitals were always a one way trip, with a Soldier’s Graveyard conveniently nearby. A Damn shame. The Captain’s eyes glisten a bit as he writes a note on Charlie’s orders and marks it Return to Sender. His throat is tight. He’ll blame the smoke.
He’s on his feet and flips open the tent flap. He looks to the sky and digs for his handkerchief as the camera trails the waft of his pipe smoke. Backing away to where it joins the plume from the campfire and then upward as it all blends in with the lingering sea of gray overcast. Nothingness.
OK. I’m clearly not ready for screenwriting, but it’s my movie. Charlie’s movie.
The book is always better.
Up in smoke went Charlie’s big chance. I doubt he ever heard a word about it.
The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.
I hope Uncle Charlie never found out just how close he had been. It would have only compounded his suffering. I imagine his potential next chapter as glorious and Patriotic. Had he followed his old Captain into the 19 U.S. Colored Infantry, Lieutenant Charlie and his Troops would have seen action at the Wilderness and Petersburg, and been up front for the occupation of Richmond. That little stretch would make a decent movie by itself. Of course, the Coin of Grace never sleeps and no one is immune.
If Charlie had miraculously recovered, (he was a religious man) and got his advancement, more tragedy likely waited in the shadows, ever lurking. Sometimes stacked like a middle school kid’s locker, waiting to rain down layer by layer like so many slaps to the face with everyone watching. War is Hell, after all. He might have been halved by canister shot at any of those skirmishes. Every bit as dead, but much more audacious and valiant. A better movie ending. Blood sells. Poo does not. At least not in the markets I’ll be working.
Suppose he had never fallen ill, and he’d received the promotion, and managed to make it through the remainder of the War unscathed. Long odds, this scenario would have him fighting all four brutal years of the Conflict. A run like that would have likely come with more brass, Charlie would have continued to shine as a Soldier, a leader and most of all a survivor. Attrition was obscene. I can see him making Captain. Regardless, I don’t picture him staying in the Army after the War ended, I think he would have been ready to go back home, Captain or not. Would battle hardened Veteran Captain Charles Dean have ever been satisfied with the Buxton farmer and carriage painter life? Conjecture eats up a lot of my valuable time. Perhaps I’ll write Charlie a better life in my book. Because I can, and he deserved it.
Imagine how Charlie’s parents might have beamed had they chanced to read these kind letters.
Instead they cried over his fresh grave, the grass seemed to take forever to fill back in.
The cemetery was all too familiar, right there beyond the garden and the one-room schoolhouse next door. Mother Priscilla could look out her upstairs window and just make out the tiny headstones of her lost babies. Four now. Little William Green Dean had been the first, just a few days after his first birthday in 1840. Sweet Sarah Elizabeth was 11 when she died in ’52. Three months later another girl was born, and they named her Sarah Elizabeth. I respect the concept, but I’m glad this trend faded away. We’re all so similar yet wonderfully unique, no one can fill another’s shoes. I think everyone deserves an original name.
The following summer would claim 11 year old Eliza Dearborn. It must have been tough for Charlie losing three younger siblings. He wouldn’t remember William but the girls both passed while Charles was a teenager, proudly embracing his Big Brother role. Mother would have one final child, a new William. Eliza Dearborn never got a replacement.
They would struggle with the loss of their oldest son. Charles Henry had been shouldering most of the chores at home, as well as keeping the family paint shop rolling. His parents were barely 50, but times were harder back in the day. There was no Social Security, no IRAs or 401Ks. The only viable retirement plans were amassing a fortune of wealth in your working years that would last you comfortably into the twilight, or raising enough children so that one might be successful enough and willing to take care of his or her aging parents. Perhaps sign over the family homestead with the stipulation that the parents be cared for and comforted until the end. We’ve already determined that my family was poor, they didn’t have a cash stuffed mattress or jars of coins buried in the root cellar, so Charlie would have been the pension plan.
Speaking of pension plans, Charlie’s parents would each eventually draw a Soldier’s Pension. I saw paperwork where his father collected twelve dollars a month at one point. That’s hard to cipher out when you think about it, putting a value on the loss of your oldest boy. It stirred so much in me that I considered titling my book “Twelve Dollars a Month”, but for now it will just be a closing chapter.
After two decades of child bearing John and Priscilla were left with 7 survivors.
The older girls, all married now and away from home.
Abigail was 30 and married to William Harmon, a cooper and farmer from Richville in Standish. They had their own War story, William was in Louisiana with the 30th Maine when Uncle Charlie died. William had two brothers in the 25th Maine, Reuben and Charles Harmon. His Charlie also died of sickness, in their first Virginia winter camp at barely three months in. William and Reuben made it home but both would suffer from rheumatism for the rest of their days. Hard times. Abbey had a boy in 1862 and named him Charles, I can’t say for sure which Uncle Charlie he was named for. The War would claim them both.
Charlie had been second oldest, between these two, dead at 28.
Mary Nance was 26 and married to Alfred Marcellus Stoddard, a carriage trimmer with a shop in Portland. Alfred had kids from a previous marriage, and he has a story brewing for another day based on some other sad letters that I’ve run across. So much tragedy, nary a soul was unscathed. Alfred and Mary lost a new baby girl that coming winter. The following winter would bring a baby boy, little Charlie Stoddard.
Lucy Dudley was 20, she married Dr. James Moore of Standish that same summer, just leaving the nest. Poor Lucy never had a son to name after Charlie, she died of consumption a few years later. Even the physician’s wife wasn’t safe from so many wandering shadows of Death.
The next two were tough, or lucky, they were tiny and vulnerable when Sarah and Eliza had succumbed to the Sickness.
Emeline Clay Dean was 17 when Charlie died, leaving her as the oldest of four still at home. She would much later marry Alexander Harding, a talented farrier and blacksmith from Gorham. They would struggle to build a family, sons George and Charles were the only two of six to make it out of the cradle. Emma was incredibly 55 when the last was born, little Ina May. The Miracle Baby was taken by Cholera after just a dozen weeks. Her Charlie would die of Tuberculosis at 24, then in 1911 it would claim both her son George and beloved husband Alexander. Poor Emeline would survive to endure the loss of George’s young wife Dora and three of their four children. Her heritage would live on through her single surviving grandchild, fittingly named Ruth Emeline Harding. A Brutal existence.
Next is my personal favorite, Supply Dean. He was 15 when he became the newest Man of the House, the eldest son. Heavy shoes to fill. Big brother Charlie had been nearly twice his age, a grown man, and had known a little bit about everything. So many challenges to face on his own now. Simply staying alive and healthy would turn out to be the wild card for so many. No amount of education or experience could outwit the bloody cough of consumption. Supply would step up and grab his fate by the horns.
He would spend plenty of time in the cemetery next door as well. He didn’t remember William or the girls, having been a toddler when they passed, but he most certainly missed his big brother Charlie. This scene hits me hard, I’ve spent a bit of time in this same little graveyard visiting my own big brother. Father and Mother were stern as ever, but Supply could see a difference in them both as if they had aged a decade overnight. They each had many years left to live but the laughter would fade, while new aches and pains would take hold like cockleburs in the tall grass. Father John always had trouble staying motivated, now he would be happy sitting by the fire all day long while chores piled up outside.
Real life problems.
Supply would have some help, there were four kids at home now and they made a good team. Emma was almost done with school, and all grown up, but she’d stick around the homestead for another dozen years to help with the family unit. The littlest kids, the replacements if you will, were still at tender ages. Sarah Elizabeth the 2nd was 11, and new Billy just 9 when Charlie died. All four kids would certainly realize the importance of a good work ethic. They were left with no choice.
Supply would shine. He wouldn’t command the glory of a Soldier or a Sailor, but he would check every box on the duty roster of a Good Son. He’d take over the family carriage painting business and the shop next door with young Billy as his avid apprentice. The years would bring automobiles up the carriage road and they’d learn how to paint them. Roll with the punches. Supply would also become Buxton’s Town Clerk in his spare time, working from a small home office. He’d keep the homestead in good shape, the big house was set up for two families now. The Deans were all painters by trade, but pretty fair carpenters as well. Survivors had to be clever and capable. His Harmon grandparents had lived with them through Supply’s early years, now his parents would slowly transition to the smaller side while he started a family of his own. He was the pension plan now, and he would see to it that his parents spent their twilight years comfortably at home. The cycles of life. Time would bring electricity and indoor plumbing, major updates and remodels. The old place still stands, and still sports a bunch of Supply’s handiwork. That’s not why he’s my favorite.
I love him most because had he failed, I wouldn’t be here. There would be no me.
The mathematics of genetics are bizarre. Hard to wrap your head around. We’re not simply a cumulation of DNA, I see us more as a composition. Amazingly unique, even siblings, those re-named replacement kids were totally different people. Even identical twins are individuals, their Mom can always tell them apart. Without Supply in his respective pigeon hole amongst my family tree, I’d have a different Mom. Completely different. If there was a family homestead it would be somewhere else, from some other family. My name certainly wouldn’t be Dean. There’d be no Me. If I somehow still claimed the slot of my Dad’s third child with a different Mom, I wouldn’t be half Me, I’d be someone else entirely. A different soul with a different name. It can’t really work that way logically, but there’s an awful lot that we don’t know.
Our tree is just a map of how we got here, names in the dust. But we’re made of so much history.
I think we’re just supposed to do our best to keep our line going. Keep composing.
Raise our children to be good people. To be survivors.
Supply didn’t waste any time. At 21 he married pretty Eva Priscilla Merritt, daughter of a Portland sailmaker. Baby Luella soon arrived, but died the following year. Steeled by all of the grief Supply had lived through up until that point, losing his baby girl would still cut like a blasphemous knife. A few years later another girl was born, and he almost reused her name, but mixed it up a bit. He saw it my way.
Lucy Ella would be another survivor. She’d outlive them all. Even little Charlie.
Yes, Supply and Eva would also have a boy to carry on the family name. Charles Henry Dean was born right there at the old homestead, probably in the same room that would welcome his granddaughter Nancy Dean to the world some 60 years later. Four little cousin Charlies now, named after their Civil War Uncle. This form of recycling of names is entirely OK with me, it’s about respect, not replacement. Reverence. I’m not sure where my reasoning falls apart.
Supply’s younger siblings would grow up and move on.
Second Sarah Elizabeth married Winfield Scott Hovey, a painter from Portland. He’d score a job painting for the Portland Railroad for a while, then later worked as an Assessor for the City. The young couple enjoyed the busy urban life. Three kids, no Charlies. The eldest daughter was named Lizzie, the name that Second Sarah also used on most documents. Named for her mother, or her late aunt, or both. The Hoveys would live long and prosper, residing near the new Deering Oaks Park and the big Post Office. A slightly different neighborhood back then I would imagine.
Baby brother Billy Dean would also do his best to share the labor load. He’d stay at the homestead for another 20 years helping Supply with the endless chores and keeping the family painting business afloat. When he finally left the nest he moved intown to Portland Street, just a block up from his sister. He rented an apartment and a small shop and hung out a shingle for his own carriage painting business. They must have all been quite talented at this lucrative work, uncles and cousins in Bangor were all painters, and most of the in-laws would come from related trades. Billy married Ida May Johnson, a farmer’s daughter from Parsonfield. He painted for the Portland Railroad for a spell while they raised their two kids, Edwin and Bernice. In his later years Bill went back on his own, painting automobiles by then at his shop on Preble Street. They lived on Atlantic Street, up on The Hill, in the shadow of the Observatory. Not bad for a poor Buxton kid. He died fairly young at 54 of the Brights, which may have been a result of breathing all of those lead paint fumes over the years. Ida would remarry and outlive her second man as well, then end up buried beside her first, Uncle Billy. That just makes me smile.
Parents John and Priscilla made it to their golden years, living to see all of their children marry and getting to meet almost all of their 20ish grandkids. They passed in the home they had built together a lifetime earlier. That house sure holds a lot of forgotten stories after almost 200 years. Hard to imagine. One family, out of millions that came before us. I can so easily get lost in the limbs of my family tree.
I’ve gotten lost on this little ride around the neighborhood, this quick story about a few dusty letters.
I remember jumping in the car with my dad at any opportunity, the destination didn’t matter. He’d keep it interesting, always taking a different route home. The back roads. The scenic route. I could even participate. Where’s that road go? He’d put the blinker on and I’d find out in real time. Google Earth in a ’79 Pontiac station wagon. Rides came with jokes, music, gossip, pointers, pit stops, soda pops, stories and memories. Truth. Sometimes they came with long spells of silence. Content with just riding. Living in the moments. I’d like to get back the ones I’ve forgotten.
I told my Mom about my newfound Charlie letters. She was grinning before I could finish the thought, like she had already known. She didn’t know of these particular letters, but she felt that she knew Charlie through the writings and photos that we treasure so. The same way that I feel, yet she has twice my share of his DNA. Even closer. She summed up the whole situation in a neat package. A simple query.
Doesn’t that just give you goosebumps?
It does. Me, anyway. Especially seeing the familiar knowing smile and the love that shines from her warm brown eyes. That’s the point I was trying to get across, but it took me some 7000 words, I apologize for taking you all around the mountain and through the gully just to end up here.
What should you take home from this painful trek to the past? A few simple points.
Do your best. Get up, get dressed, show up. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Toe the line. Take the high road. Be the better person. Be a leader. Work like the boss is watching even when he isn’t. Somebody is always watching. Follow your dreams. Love your Country. Respect Her Flag.
Most important of all, the dark underlying theme. Sh!t Happens. Make the best of it.
Thanks for coming along, if you made it all this way.
Maybe next time you should ride with Mom instead.