Civil War told via a dear companion

August 31, 2012|Kate Coleman

In case you haven't heard, it's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War — at least the parts right here in Washington County.

In the next couple of weeks, Boonsboro and Sharpsburg re-enactments of local battles will commemorate American history as it happened in our own backyard.

I don't plan to attend the re-enactments. I think I'll be content to learn about the reality of the awful conflict by re-reading letters David Harrison Idol wrote to his wife, Mary Davis Idol from 1862 to 1865.

The Idols are the great-grandparents of my friend, Chuck Idol, who off-handedly mentioned the letters to me a few years ago. He and cousins researched the family history, from roots in Germany to a farm in North Carolina. Chuck compiled the information and included transcriptions of the precious hand-written letters.

Each begins "Dear Companion."

David Harrison Idol was mustered into the 2nd North Carolina Battalion as a musician. "I understand I shall be head fifer of the Battalion," he wrote on Nov. 8, 1862. Later, he was named "Chief Musician." He mentioned making "right smart money" from the printing of a song he composed, and he wrote "we pass off time now and then on the fiddle & Banjo, singing ..."

I guess Chuck inherited his musical talent from his great-granddad.

The letters are wonderfully detailed.

They include mentions of war's hardships: rain, snow, and scarcity of food, bedclothes and money. He wrote of sickness — typhoid and smallpox.

He wrote of battle. "Our Bateries opened up on the Yankees close by us. In half hour the muskets opened and I never heard such a noise in my life. — I do not know how many Yankess was killed. I saw one man Jaw shot off & another with both legs broken."

He spent time in a prison camp in Elmira, N.Y., where he taught "the boys" spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic and English grammar.

The letters are a wealth of specific information about the times and the war, but what touched me most was the humanity of D.H. Idol. He was away at war, a husband and father of three — then, with the birth of the youngest in 1863 — four young sons.

"I want you to write as often as possible," he wrote to his wife. "As your letters are like angels visits far between. If you knew how much good one does me you would write oftener. Kiss all the Babes for me."

In another letter he wrote, "I dreamed I was with you last night, I wish it had been so. How I would like to see Buddy, Tint and Junius. They will forget me I expect. — I must come to a close as I am writing by fire light on my knee. I would like to see you, sure. You are not forgotten but I cant do any thing for you."

His worry and longing are heart-wrenching.

On Feb. 6, 1865, about two months before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender, David Harrison Idol wrote from Elmira:

"Sweet Home & peace is my motto. May the Lord grant it.

"I will close. I remain yours Truly.

 "D.H. Idol"

He too is a dear — very dear — companion.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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