Archive for the ‘Civil War Project’ Category

Lassoes and Loopholes

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Civil War book I’m writing based on letters from my ancestors. In trying to fill in the gaps, stitch the letters together with background information, and provide historical context, I’ve searched high and wide to try and track down details about people, places, and events alluded to in the letters. Often my sleuthing takes me back to books and articles published long ago, but even when I find some clues, the whole picture is never there, at least in clear focus. Usually I have to piece things together from various sources and see where the “evidence” leads.

This can be especially frustrating when I’m dealing with secret organizations. The Underground Railroad, for instance. Or the Knights of the Golden Circle. Or the “Snake Hunters” who helped Union troops capture the Moccasin Rangers in West Virginia in 1861. Or the “Patriots” who participated in the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and 1838.

Getting a tight fix on people and events that used subterfuge to cover their trails is a bit like lassoing moving targets in the dark–there are always going to be loopholes big enough to trip up even the surest-footed Sherlock Holmes.

Which brings me to my point for today, if there is one besides “blenting”–that is, using my blog to vent. One thing I’ve relearned on this journey is that every piece of history ever recorded, in whatever format, is incredibly limiting and freeing. We can never recapture all that happened in even a fraction of a second, but every tidbit corralled has the potential to open up whole new ways of seeing and appreciating this awesome thing we call life.

Winter Meadows

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

It’s a cold snowy day as I write this. For months my writing and work on the Civil War book project seems to have been stuck in a drift. But that’s okay. The ”force that through the green fuse drives the flower” has been flowing for me elsewhere in the past four months.” What has been flowing for me is time with family. Is there anything more important?

In August/September, Dave and I traveled to Minnesota for a Borchard family reunion. In October we took a little time out to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Maine. Since then I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to helping my daughter and her family during her recovery from hernia repair. She has been prohibited from lifting anything more than eight pounds for two months from the date of her surgery. That includes five-year-old Ethan, three-year-old Delaney, and Camden, the 18-month-old, that cute “little” snug-a-lug who weighs in at a “mere” 36 pounds!

So, thanks to the “weights” I’ve been lifting and yoga, my upper body strength has increased significantly. But I haven’t had much time, energy, or inclination for writing. In fact, I had actually started skidding into a writing slump before my daughter’s surgery, after I printed out and started reading a rough draft of the historical novel I had been working on. The deep freeze seemed the perfect resting place for it.

Yet, if the past four months have brought anything home to me, it’s not only the importance of family, but the joy of being blessed with kids, grandkids, relatives, and a husband I dearly love. And that, I realize, is what the letters and stories of my ancestors are really about.

Even so, I have found it hard to plow through the frozen meadows in my writing, and so I have been hoping for a few small breaks or signs that a thawing is on the way. Three things have happened in the past week that, for me, just may indicate that the “green fuse” is rising.

The first is a funny little coincidence that most people would probably find insignificant. When Dave and I went to vote on Saturday, December 5th, the two people who had signed in just before us had the last name of “Byers.” Since that is one of the family names associated with the letters, I wondered: was something nudging me to get back to them?

On Sunday, December 6th, I completed a little project I had been asked to do by my grandson Ethan for his kindergarten class at Parr’s Ridge Elementary School in Mt. Airy, Maryland. What were the Christmas traditions in Shepherdstown, his class wanted to know. In doing a bit of research for this project, I discovered that Shepherdstown is known as a “storybook” town, so I decided to use the “storybook” approach for the project–with hopes that it would inspire the kindergarteners, now learning to read, to do their own storybooks. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed writing and doing artistic things.

On Monday, December 7th, Dave and I were shopping in our local bookstore, Four Seasons, when the January 2010 issue of “The Writer Magazine” caught my eye. One of the stories featured on the cover was “Simple Strategies to Get Out of A Creative Rut.” I bought it.

Tuesday night, before going to sleep, I opened the magazine to that article. Was I ever surprised and delighted to find that it was an archival article by Peggy Simson Curry, Wyoming’s first poet laureate. Peggy died in 1987, but I was fortunate to be in the last creative writing course she taught at Casper College and, later, in a small writing group she started. If I had to pick one person who inspired and helped me in my writing career, it would be Peggy, not just because of her accomplishments, but because of who she was. Whomever she was with, whatever she was doing–she did with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength.

In writing about her own winter as a writer, she recalls the time she saw some men with pitchforks digging hay out of a snow-covered meadow. “Deep in those haystacks, covered with snow,” she writes, “was the green and fragrant heart of summer. No matter how cold the day, a man could dig down and find the green. He could smell again the timothy and the clover.”

Is it just coincidence that that article by that particular person landed in my hands at this time? I tend to think not, but regardless of the significance of such a “coincidence,” for me it has a clear meaning. As Peggy writes, “winter meadows [are] an inevitable part of every life, but in such meadows there [are] always the humps of snow-drifted green, the gathered and fragrant harvest of living.”

Thanks, Peggy.

In Will’s Footsteps

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Last week Dave and I trekked through the hills of West Virginia looking for the places my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, might have been during the late summer and fall of 1861, when he served as Quarter Master Sergeant for the 5th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. I have several letters to and from him when he was quartered at Camp Hope near Buckhannon, Virginia–which would be WEST Virginia now. 

As we traveled up and down and around one hill after another, I couldn’t help remembering some of Will’s descriptions of the area and his herculean task of getting food, water, and supplies to the troops in such a challenging terrain:

“Going down a Virginia Hill,” he writes in a letter dated August 9th, 1861, “I stept on a little stone with my left foot–it turned–twisted the ankle, and I was lame. Nevertheless, to keep up appearances I limped as little as possible, walked all that day, and till ten at night, when we stopped at a big manure pile, without food, fire, water, or inhabitants. I slept in a wagon. Early in the morning, with a rather stiff ankle, I started ahead to find water. I found some, but not enough for the regiment–took a wash and a drink–vomited freely–found lots of blackberries–eat fruit, and at the end of 3 1/2 miles we halted to cook breakfast. I assure you the coffee tasted good.”

He goes on to describe their camp as “a pretty place at a distance, but surrounded by a mud hole or slough, like a snake around the neck of a maiden.”

I saw many places that fit that description–places where creeks and rivers came together in wet, muddy bottomlands. But, unlike Will, Dave and I were traveling in an air-conditioned Honda Accord with cushioned seats designed to support our backs and built-in pockets for our water bottles. As good as Will’s coffee tasted to him, I doubt it came with frothed milk on top, a chocolate chip cookie on the side, and newspaper to read at the Daily Grind in downtown Buckhannon. Our lunch in Philippi was quite a bit more substantial than blackberries, and our king-sized bed that night was worlds apart from a hard wagon bed.

Yet our experience, 148 years later, was hardly the stuff that left us with the indelible impression that Will’s did–except, of course, by way of contrast. And, as we celebrated Memorial Day that weekend, I couldn’t help but be grateful for all the sacrifices that Will and so many others made for our common welfare today.



The Journey of the Letters, #20

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

This may be the last installment I will write for a while on the collection of more than 300 letters I have from my ancestors in the nineteenth century. 

It is time to turn my attention to some other topics; time to finish the historical novel I am writing about my great-great grandparents, Will and Eliza Tomlinson of Ripley, Ohio.

The letters started me on this journey. The letters will, I believe, complete it. The story they tell has become part of my story.

But now it is time to focus less on my role in this story and concentrate more on the story of Will and Eliza. Theirs is a story of what it was like to live in a prosperous but dangerous place during an exciting but terrifying time. Theirs is the story of people whose soulful love, passionate loyalties, and courageous stands created uncommon bonds and uncanny enemies.  

Their story is the story of the borderlands, those liminal places where enemies meet and clash; where the channels of a mighty river unite and divide; where the hills are haunted with betrayal and reunion. In such country, border country, even the most solitary sojourn is crowded with faces of regret and redemption. 

Yet, as the letters demonstrate again and again, it is in the swirling currents at the river’s edge that our loyalties, our loves, and even our lives are formed. There, where the past washes up on the shores of the present, we can, if we choose, chart a better tomorrow.

May the wind be at your back.


The Journey of the Letters, #19

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I have spent much of the last ten years researching and writing about the story of my ancestors who wrote the letters. I’ve learned so much. Yet so many questions remain.

WERE my ancestors involved in the Underground Railroad? A psychic I once consulted said yes! But so far I’ve found no clear proof of their direct involvement.

WHY did Eliza object to Will’s plan of raising a regiment of Negro troops from the Cincinnati area? Was she afraid for his and the family’s safety? Or was she just too prejudiced to support such an idea? 

WHAT exactly happened in the affray between Will and the man who fatally shot him on the banks of the Ohio River on November 27, 1863? Was Will the initiator of their violent encounter? If so, why? And what provoked him?

The more research I do and “lucky breaks” that come my way, the more I’m able to piece the story together, using what I call “informed speculation.” Over the years, a number of dreams have also led me to new insights and provided encouragement and confirmation for the journey that the letters and I are making together.

What still remains amazing to me is that the letters have come together. And that they’ve done so through such an amazing series of serendipitous events. It’s as if they have a life of their own.

I’m grateful to be a part of it.


The Journey of the Letters, #18

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

On March 14th of 2008, thanks to a suggestion from the archivist I emailed in Northumberland, I used the online LDS Church site, the Family Search International Genealogical Index (IGI), to access a list of infants named William Tomlinson baptized in northern England from 1823 to 1826.  

One entry really stood out for me.  It was for William Thomlinson (note the “h” after the initial “T”), baptized September 18, 1824. Will would have been just a little over a year old. The timing fit, as did the names of the parents, George and Jane Thomlinson.

What surprised me, though, was the place–a parish in Cumberland, England, by the name of Camerton. Remember, Will’s naturalization record states that he was a NATIVE of Cumberland, not Northumberland, as listed in the family history that came with the letter collection.

I googled Camerton to see where it was in Cumberland. Lo and behold, I found that it was adjacent to a village named SEATON!

The family history was correct about the Seaton part, but the Seaton where Will was born was in Cumberland, not Northumberland. Seaton, Cumberland, by the way, is east of Cockermouth, on the outskirts of the seacoast town of Workington. 

It seems that finding one thing often leads to another, so I used the IGI to search for data on Will’s parents. Once again, I hit a little jackpot. I found the christening record for Will’s mother, Jane Todhunter, who was born April 13th, 1807, and baptized a month later on May 7th, at Bridekirk, also in Cumberland. Her parents are listed as William Todhunter (mentioned in the family history) and Jane Wilson, of Bridekirk (just north of Cockermouth).

Other online databases have also surfaced listings for a George Tomlinson in the Royal Navy and as an alumna of St. John’s College, Cambridge, in Lent of 1819. Is this the same George Tomlinson as Will’s father? I don’t know, but I’m sure there is more to come.    

The Journey of the Letters, #17

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

In the last few years, a lot of new material on the Canadian Patriots who were sent to the penal colony in Van Dieman’s Land in 1838 has been put online. I was even able to find various lists of those in the uprising. Alas, I did not find any record of my great-great-great grandfather, George Tomlinson.

But I still believe that my great-great grandfather Will had a special reason for using an article on Van Dieman’s Land on the front page of his newspaper. Perhaps something will confirm that in the future–through some kind of serendipitous means. I’m open to that.

In the meantime, I have made other surprising discoveries online. For instance, for years I wondered about the discrepancy in birth places between Will’s official naturalization record and the family history that came with the letters. In his naturalization proceedings in 1845, he not only swore allegiance to these United States and disavowed any loyalty to the Queen of England, he also stated that he landed in Quebec in 1828 from Cumberland, in England, before coming to the U.S. in 1838. Yet the family history states that he was born in Seaton, Northumberland, in England. 

The provinces of Cumberland and Northumberland sit side by side in northern England, just below the Scottish border. Cumberland is on the western side of England, and Northumberland on the east. I had always assumed that Will was probably born in Northumberland but sailed from Cumberland.

Then I contacted an archivist in Northumberland to ask how I might find birth and/or baptismal records for him in the Seaton area there. Which Seaton did I mean, she asked. It turns out that there were several. Hmmn. 

Using online resources, I started searching baptismal records for anyone named William Tomlinson in northern England in the years around Will’s birth (1823). I could hardly believe what I found.

The Journey of the Letters, #16

Monday, March 9th, 2009

You never know what you’ll find in old newspapers, especially when they were published by your ancestors.

How many times had I skimmed the June 15th, 1844 edition of Freedom’s Casket, the first newspaper my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, published! How many times had I looked at the article entitled “The Life of a Prisoner.”

Yet nothing stood out for me. It seemed to be just another article reprinted from yet another newspaper. Or so I thought, until I returned from our trip to Quebec and wrote what I thought was a plausible explanation for why Will never mentioned his father in his newspapers or letters. Then, all of a sudden, the article leapt out at me. 

The article itself is actually a review of a pamphlet by Stephen S. Wright on his three years’ captivity in Van Dieman’s Land after he was captured with “the ill-fated expedition” that left Ogdensburg, New York, on November 10th, 1838. Did the same fate befall Will’s father? Where was Van Dieman’s Land, anyway?

When I had looked at the article before, I had assumed it was some remote outpost in the wilds of Canada. But it just so happens that, after coming back from Quebec, I had read a novel about a young woman from Tasmania. The novel’s description of Tasmania mentioned its ignominious history as Britain’s worst penal colony–literally at the ends of the earth, then known as (you guessed it) Van Dieman’s Land. Walla!

Now, if I could just find some record of Will’s father being shipped or killed there. I started searching.


The Journey of the Letters, #15

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Over the years I’ve collected files and files of things pertaining to this project, both on my computer and in hard copy. Included in all the material that keeps filling notebooks, filing cabinets, and computer files are photocopies of microfilmed issues of newspapers that my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, published and worked on. 

After talking with the guide/lecturer on our trip to Quebec, I also began collecting information on the Canadian Patriots and their role in the rebellion of 1838. The more I delved into the history of the Patriots and their attempt to overthrow the aristocracy of Lower Canada, the more convinced I became that Will’s father George had been involved. Several things seemed to point in this direction.

One was Will’s hatred of the aristocracy. Even though his mother was Lady Jane Todhunter, daughter of Sir William Todhunter of Seaton, Cumberland, in England, his newspapers and letters were filled with ravings against the aristocracy. Another was the mystery surrounding Will’s father. Will never mentioned him in any of his letters. Yet he and Eliza named their first child after him. And then there was that date–1838, the year that Will’s official naturalization record listed for when he came to the U.S.

Our guide/lecturer had told us that many of the Patriots had escaped to the U.S. after the rebellion failed. I couldn’t help thinking that there was a connection and engaged in some informed speculation. In July of 2008, in the second chapter of my novel based on Will and Eliza, I wrote that Will’s father had disappeared in 1838 when he was captured in a raid the Patriots made into Canada.

Immediately after I picked up a copy of the June 15th, 1844 edition of Freedom’s Casket, the first newspaper Will published. Imagine my surprise when I began reading the front page and saw that the lead article, “The Life of A Prisoner,” was about the Canadian Patriots who had left Ogdensburg, New York, on November 10th, 1838, and were subsequently defeated and imprisoned, with several being executed.

Of all the articles, from the dozens of newspapers and other publications, that Will could have chosen to use for the lead article in his newspaper, why had he selected that particular one? And was it just coincidence that Will had not only lived in Ogdensburg, but probably began his newspaper career there?


The Journey of the Letters, #14

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Remember how my first trip to Ripley, Ohio, put me on the path to finding out where my ancestors lived?

In August of 2007, Dave and I set out on another adventure, one that we hoped would also lead to some serendipitous discoveries. We spent two weeks in the Canadian province of Quebec, including 10 days on an Elderhostel tour on “The Heart of Quebec: Its History, Culture, and Cuisine.” 

At dinner one night, Dave and I sat across from our guide/lecturer for the tour. I told him that my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, and his family left England to come to Quebec in 1828, when Will was just four years old, and then moved to the United States through Ft. Covington, New York, in 1838, when Will was fourteen. 

“Interesting dates,” our guide said, adding that they were quite significant in terms of Canadian history. 

He explained that 1828 was a time when many land grants in Lower and Upper Canada were given to former British military officers.

“It just so happens,” I said, “that Will’s father, George Tomlinson, is listed in our family history as a captain in the Royal Navy.”

“Aah,” our guide said. “And do you know where they settled here in Quebec?”

I didn’t, but, according to our guide, the area they settled in could help to explain why they left in 1838.

“What happened then?” I asked.

“The Rebellion of 1838, when the Canadian Patriots rose up against the established powers–especially the British aristocracy and Roman Catholic hegemony,” he said.

It was my turn to say, “Aah.” That would indeed explain some things, I thought. But at the time, I didn’t realize how much.