REAL History

This fall in homeschooling, we’ve been studying influential leaders in American History.  Because we studied about George Washington and the Revolutionary War this summer, it seemed appropriate to then study the Civil War this fall.

We’ve loved studying all about the Confederate and the Union soldiers, the role women played in caring for and supporting their troops, and the role children played during this time – helping out at home on the farm or becoming an integral part of the war as a drummer boy.  We’ve dug deep into Abraham Lincoln and the great moral courage he expressed to help free the slaves and reconstitute the United States.  We visited his Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL.  We’ve read dozens of children’s books about the joys and hardships this era produced on our people.

In fact today, we had a Civil War “festival” where we wrote with quill pens, created “paper” quilts, made hard-tack (a hard, crusty cracker that was bland in every sense of the word but something you’d love on the battle field if you were hungry enough) and yes, we even ate baked squirrel as part of our lunch.  They did that kind of thing back then.  (And because what country bump-kin’ has frozen squirrels in their freezer?  Um…yeah – that would be us.  Well, at least it’s locally raised.  That’s somethin’ right?!)

Anyway, while my kids and I are no experts on this time period, we’ve developed a love and an appreciation for what our brothers and sisters did during that time.  I can only speak for myself, but all romantic longings to live in a “simpler time” have been cured for me.  I honestly don’t know how they did it back then…but I am sure grateful for their tenacity, courage, and bravery.

But let me get to the point of my writing tonight….

An added bonus to our study arrived in the mail last week!  I recently learned that a family member of mine has dug deep to learn more about our family history.  In fact, she happened to have a first hand account of our family story as told by my great grandmother and lovingly sent us a copy of this incredible story.

One morning during our home-schooling time, I sat my 7 year old daughter down on the couch with me.  I explained that while we’ve been studying about the 1850s-1860s, I was going to share with her something very special.  Through the words in her story, Ella Dodge Avery, my daughter’s great-great-great grand-mother, born in 1853, shares with us her story as if she were sitting on the couch right next to us.

We learned that when Ella was 15, they moved to Owatonna where she and her parents lived in “a little low house (one story – a front room with 2 beds, a kitchen, a closet and a pantry).”  Her family then moved on to Litchfield, MN “when it was a simple prairie.”  Ella shared that “one man said he felt sorry for the women folks because it was so windy that their wide skirts flew about and puffed up like balloons.”

As I read this first page to my daughter, she asked, “This was MY great-great-great grandmother?  Mine?”

I confirmed, “Yes, sweets.  Your great-great-great grandmother.”

Still not quite believing, she continued, “My REAL family member?  Like this is part of our family?”  Laughing, I continued the story and she, riveted, was on the edge of her seat.

At one point, my daughter jumped up off her chair and went dashing up stairs.  I asked her where she was going to which she replied, “Hold on…”  In a moment she brought back a presidential flip book I had purchased for her which explained who was president and when.  She was hungry to learn who was president when Ella was a little girl.  She learned it was Franklin Pierce.  Then we did the math and then realized that Ella was about 8 years old when President Lincoln was elected.  I could see the wheels spinning…”So Ella was about my age when President Lincoln was elected,” my daughter said slowly.  “Yes, that’s right,” I replied.  It was like she was touching history…REAL history.  Not history from a book but her history.  It was a powerful moment.

I could see, as I continued reading, that my daughter began to see herself in Ella.  She saw how hard Ella worked to take care of her “always sick mother” and her sickly sister, Flora, who basically sat in a chair for three years.  And at this same time, Ella was widowed and had a baby of her own.  She took care of all three of them – all the while “making all their clothes.”

I could see my daughter was now not just learning history, she was beginning to define her own character and take pride in the strength of her great-great grandmother.  This is what educating is all about – making the learning real and impactful.  This is REAL history, and we each have it.  I’m curious, what have you discovered about your family history that has made an impact on you?

3 thoughts on “REAL History

  1. When I was in school. I thought history was boring. Studying the Civil War, we had to memorize all the battles, and the Generals. Today I don’t remember much of any of that. But years later, I did some research and found out that my Great-great-Grandfather fought in the Civil War and I sent for his military records from the National Archives. That’s when I learned about the Civil War.

    GG Grandfather John Layton was a farmer in Somerset County Pennsylvania. He and his wife Mary had six children when the Civil War began. John was 37 years old when he enlisted and the records say he was 5’10” with blue eyes and a fair complexion and light hair. Julianna, the youngest was a baby, and William, my great grandfather was only 6 when his daddy left for war in August of 1862. The oldest child was Elizabeth and she was 12. John fought in several battles, but most of the time, they just sat in camp, and tried to put up with the mud from the rain, with not enough food for all the soldiers. So in February 1863, John injured his ankle and decided to go home. He walked from Relay Maryland back to his farm where the family was so glad to see him.

    His ankle never healed properly, leaving him with a limp, but when spring came he planted the crops because there was no one else to do it. In the fall, he harvested the crops. The next spring (1864) he planted the farm crops again, but unfortunately a “bounty hunter” reported him to the officials because John was a deserter! The bounty hunter was paid $30 for turning John in. So John was arrested and went back to the war in May. (You’ll have to find out what a “Bounty Hunter” was.)

    His captain wrote a letter in August saying that John was returned to the company “armed and equipped” and since his return, John had served “in a very creditably and soldierly manner and displayed marked courage under fire.”

    But the end of the war came and all the soldiers made their way home. John never arrived. Mary was worried. She had a brand new baby that was born two months after John was arrested. She couldn’t read or write, so she asked a friend to write to the army to find out where her husband was. The reply that she received said that John became sick with smallpox in September and was sent to the Sheridan hospital in Winchester Virginia and he died in October and was buried in the military cemetery in Winchester. (I can’t imagine what Mary did when she received this terrible newsalone on a farm with seven young children.)

    She tried to get a pension from the army, but first she had to prove that she was John’s wife. Then months later, they told her she had to have proof that all these children were John’s children. This was all very difficult for a woman who never learned to read and write. By the summer of 1867, she was still trying to get a pension from the Army to help her family survive. But they couldn’t live all of this time with no money, so she had to give up her children. My great-grandfather William and all his brothers and sisters except the baby were taken away from their home and put into foster homes. Mary was only allowed to keep the baby.

    Then Pennsylvania established orphanage schools for all the children of Civil War soldiers who died and William and a brother and sister were sent to these schools in 1866 where they learned to read and write and the boys learned to be farmers and the girls learned housekeeping skills.

    Later reading about the Civil War became more interesting to me. I learned that while John sat around in the camp in the rain and mud, not doing anything, Lincoln was getting very impatient with his Generals who would not get out and fight. Later when he promoted General Grant to take charge, General Grant pushed the armies into battle and won the Civil war. I also learned that only 1/2 the deaths in the Civil War were from battle wounds and injuriesthe other half was from disease like my GG Grandfather. So that is REAL HISTORY and the sad story of my GG Grandfather. Lynda

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