In Will’s Footsteps

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.



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