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Join Date: Feb 2011
Location: Land of Lincoln
Re: Footage: Civil War 50th & 75th anniversaries
Took me a while to find this - it was in the Chicago Tribune in 2003.
Civil War 'Sons'
Before Memorial Day became a long weekend unofficially launching summer, the holiday honoring American war dead was celebrated every year on May 30. It got its start as Decoration Day, established in 1868 as an occasion to place flowers on the graves of those who died in the Civil War.
That was 135 years ago, but a remarkable 8th-grade class project in Peoria has uncovered some living links to the War Between the States -- men whose fathers fought in the four-year conflict.
William Upham, 87, of Milwaukee, John Whitman, 79, of Hot Springs, S.D., and James Gowin Jr., 88, of Nashville, are among 24 sons of Union Army veterans who have been corresponding with students at Blaine Sumner Middle School. Whitman and Gowin are coming to Peoria Friday for a modern Decoration Day ceremony; Upham said he'd be there, too, if it weren't for a scheduling conflict -- he has to be at West Point commencement exercises to represent the Class of 1866 for his dad.
"It's important to keep the fires lit wherever I can," Upham said.
The program, set for Peoria's Grand Army of the Republic Hall, culminates the school project, though the students intend to produce a film. They have learned firsthand from the veterans' sons of the war's withering devastation, a conflagration that saw young teenagers almost their own age go off to battle in a time when miserable medical conditions and disease killed more than twice the number of those who fell in combat.
An estimated 600,000 Americans died, and the war losses hit especially hard in the South, where Scott Smith, a historian with the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah, Ga., said more than a quarter of the male population perished and at least that many more were left maimed.
Smith noted women of this era were considered spinsters if they weren't wed by age 25 and, with fewer potential partners available, many eventually became the second -- and sometimes third -- wives of much older men and the mothers of their children.
It was a May-December marriage and parenthood phenomenon felt for decades after the actual shooting stopped in 1865. There are nearly 300 people alive today whose fathers were soldiers for either the North or South between 1861 and 1865.
"To be honest, the numbers we're dealing with are almost beyond meaning for some of the kids," said Sumner teacher and project organizer Tim Pletkovich, referring to the 138 years that have passed since the Civil War ended. "Heck, I've had adults tell me I've got to be lying. It is pretty startling so many would still be alive today with fathers in the war."
Brittney Jackson, 14, a Sumner student, said she has learned a lot about the Civil War through the correspondence, but admitted: "I was kind of surprised when we started getting letters back from them."
Classmate Kwame Lobdell, 14, said he thought the exercise was a joke when his teacher first outlined it last fall. "I didn't think anybody could be that old," he said.
The sons contacted by the class are the same ages, from their late 70s to late 90s, as some of their Civil War veteran fathers were when they were born. The oldest respondent is 99-year-old Edward Blakely of Kentwood, Mich., whom Pletkovich met last summer at a Civil War conference in Springfield, Ill.
"The first thing someone generally thinks of you is that you're an old goat when they learn your father was in the Civil War," said Horace Rumsey, 88, of Waterloo, N.Y., whose father was 17 when he joined the Union Army.
"People are always very surprised to know my dad fought in the Civil War," said Whitman, who will be the keynote speaker at Friday's festivities in Peoria. "Usually eyebrows go up and I have to explain more. I've never really had anybody show an interest like these kids, though."
Upham says he was so inspired by the project -- and disappointed he can't attend the ceremony -- that he has established a $1,000 scholarship at Sumner. His father, a member of a Wisconsin unit at age 20, was wounded in the Civil War's first battle at Manassas (Bull Run), Va., and spent several weeks in a Confederate prison. After his release in an exchange, he received a presidential appointment to West Point.
"When I told this nice young lady at the academy handling arrangements for the graduation I'd be there for my dad's class [of 1866], I asked if any other sons were coming," Upham said. "She laughed and laughed."
Upham's father became a successful businessman in Wisconsin after his military career and served one term in the 1890s as governor. "Right after the war, he was an officer in a prison guard unit for [Confederate president] Jefferson Davis," Upham said. "He shook the hand of both Abe Lincoln and Davis."
Many of the older men who corresponded with the Sumner students either directly, or through a younger relative or caretaker, belong to an organization called Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
There are approximately 6,700 members in the SUVCW, according to national secretary Edward J. Krieser, of Valparaiso, Ind., but most are grandsons, great-grandsons or joined through other rules allowing for membership.
"I'd say there are about 40 `true' Union Army sons left today, and approximately an equal number of daughters," Krieser said. "It's a special group, and people are surprised to learn of their existence, but the numbers are dwindling every day. There aren't many left."
When Pletkovich started the project at Sumner, he was working from a list of 27 Union veterans' sons that he compiled, but three died without the students hearing from them.
Piecing history together
Pletkovich said his Sumner students have been able to piece together meaningful history through their correspondence. For instance, the teacher noted students have learned soldiers fought for a variety of reasons, and not everyone who lived in the South was pro-slavery.
This was the case for the father of Gowin, who's coming to Peoria from Nashville for Friday's program. His family lived in Tennessee when the war broke out, but, because they opposed slavery, they moved to Indiana and that's how his father came to fight for the Union.
On the Civil War's Southern side, officials with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy place their total number at about 220 -- 100 sons and 120 daughters.
"Our numbers are probably higher simply because there were so many young teenagers fighting for the Confederacy," said Martha Boltz, a UDC spokeswoman. "So much of the war was fought in the South and people were defending homes. It was just a terrible time. It was a war in which two generations were lost -- the soldiers and the families they would've had."
Ben C. Sewell III, SCV executive director, noted one Civil War widow still survives. She is Alberta Martin, 96, who lives in Enterprise, Ala. At age 21, she married Confederate Army veteran William Martin, who was 81 at the time. They had one child, a son.
"A lot of these gals married the men for their pensions," Sewell said. "The times were tough when a lot of the marriages took place."
Because of the age differences, many of the surviving offspring were too young to learn much about war experiences from their fathers before they died.
"My dad was 71 when I was born, and I probably wasn't exactly the apple of his eye," Rumsey said. "I'm sure at his age he thought I was a disruption in the house."
"I was 12 when he died, and I don't remember that he really talked much about the war," he added. "He used to mutter a lot in his dotage and that made me believe, as a sergeant, his company had it rough.
"He'd say things like, `Get those men up here, quick!' Or, `Something's wrong here.'"
Some sons, such as Bennett Y. Allen, 89, whose father was from Virginia and fought for the South, have taken it upon themselves to do their own research.
"About all I could remember is my dad going to conventions and reunions," said Allen, who lives in New Bronzeville, Texas. "He didn't talk much about the war, but when he did, it pretty much went in one ear and out the other. I wish I'd paid more attention. I was 10 when he died."
Allen eventually learned his father survived major battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being transferred to the Confederate navy, where he served on the James River in Virginia. "All the souvenirs he left me have been lost through the years," he said.
Julius C. Ward, 85, a Bay Shore, N.Y., resident who belongs to the Coast Guard auxiliary, said he has his father's discharge papers framed and hanging on a wall. His dad, Julius A. Ward, was 67 when the younger Ward was born.
"He spent [his service during] the last year of the war with a unit that fought Confederate guerrillas in Tennessee," Ward said. "When they were through, the captain just pulled out this form, filled in the name on the appropriate line, and he was discharged. That was it."
"Kids don't usually ask me a lot about my father like these students did," Ward said. "I used to talk to him a bit about his experiences, but I was only 10 when he was killed in a train accident.
"I know he must have impressed me somehow because every time I hear certain hymns, like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," it always sort of sends me and makes me kind of teary."
Ward added that he knows having a Union Army veteran as a father is extremely interesting to some, and he doesn't mind talking about it. "The sad part is when people don't even know when the Civil War occurred," he said.
SHOOT FIRST. SHOOT SECOND. MOST IMPORTANTLY, BE THE MAN WHO'S SHOOTING LAST.