The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 11, 2008

Letters from the battlefield

BY ROBIN QUILLON

As we get older, our memories fade, eventually dissolving into smoky recollections, if we don’t preserve them in writing.

What price would you pay for a diary written by your great-great-great-grandmother or -grandfather? Imagine how priceless it would be.

Ancestors on my mother’s side, Sgt. George Davidson Bailey and his brother, Cpl. Council Walker Bailey, fought in the Civil War – on Oct. 19, 1864, at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia. They, along with 11 other of my Bailey relatives, were part of the Confederate Army, Company H, 60th Infantry Regiment.

I have a book containing two letters written by my great-great-great-grandfather George to his mother from the battlefield. I have read the letters many times and wish he’d written more.

From his letters, I find he was a very strong-willed and principled man. He often wrote about honor and duty to his country, the beloved South!

In one letter, he told his mother that his brother Council was safe and asked her to please not worry. In another, he longed to return home to the farm and kiss his momma on the cheek. He wanted so much to plant crops and just sit on the porch.

George was killed in action; his brother lived. George was buried about 15 miles from where he fell. I found his gravesite.

I walked the same field where he fought. I sat on the split-rail fence overlooking the battlefield, and read his letters again. It was a moving experience.

But what wouldn’t I give for a daily diary of his experiences?

My wish is in vain, there are no more.

Our budding nation learned a great deal from the journals of Lewis and Clark. They detailed their expedition as they navigated this vast uncharted continent.

Here is one such entry:

January 8, 1806: “From this point I beheld the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed, in my frount a boundless Ocean ... the coast as far as my sight could be extended, beholding with astonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks of this emence ocean … the expedition had reached its destination ... the Pacific Ocean!”

Unlike rings of gold and silver, land, cars, stocks and bonds, houses and such, passed along from one generation to the next, a personal journal has no real intrinsic value. And only those closely connected will realize or appreciate its worth.

Remember, your experiences, if recorded, will provide important insight, and serve as a bridge connecting the past to the present. And that alone makes your story priceless and relevant no matter what time period one lives.

By writing down your experiences, you are giving your loved ones something more valuable than gold and silver. You are giving them ... you.

Imagine reading the words of an ancestor who might have lived during World War I or the Great Depression.

Think for a moment how valuable your thoughts, motivations and interest will be to your progeny 100 years from now?

Who cares if you cannot write or spell perefctly? Your ancestors will not care about a misspelled word or improper grammar. Please don’t let that stand in your way of recording your thoughts, feelings and emotions of the day.

I believe those who read your words will cherish and hold them dear, warts and all.

Each of us is part of a genetic pool that reaches back thousands of years. Who you are, the tendencies you have, your personality – all – you have inherited from your ancestors. I believe that the more we discover about our ancestors the more we are uncovering about ourselves.

We know from a visit to the doctor how invaluable family medical history is to our treatment and health. The same holds true about understanding personality makeups of those who have gone before us.

I must admit, after some genealogy searching – reading letters and diaries of my ancestors – I was afraid to look any further up my family tree. I feared a jug of white lighting would fall downward and hit me on the head.

But who cares? Someone once said that we should not throw stones at our ancestors. That is good advice.

During your life, you may have experienced deep inner tugging, beckoning you in a certain direction or path in life, and you may not know why; only to discover through the writings of an ancestor that they were very accomplished in the very field tugging you.

Journals offer connection, continuity from one generation to the next. There has been a yearning to record history since the days of Adam and Eve.

The craving to write and record has been a driving force for mankind. When they didn’t have paper, they wrote on the walls of caves. There have been messages placed in bottles, flung to the mercies of deep hoping a loved one might discover.

There have been aching love notes written to sweethearts.

How precious could your words written on a few scraps of paper be to a loved one?

“Tell all I’ll see them on the other side. It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.”

Those were the last written words of West Vrginia coal miner Martin Toler Jr. He, along with 12 others, was never seen again alive.

Why not make today the day you start a journal? It’s not too late to start.

Resolve today to leave behind something for your family far more valuable than gold and silver. Leave them more than just a footprint in the sand. Your life’s story is unique and only you can tell it.

When your loved ones read your story, they will not only be discovering you, but uncovering more about themselves.



Robin Quillon is publisher of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at rquillon@tribdem.com.