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Memorial Day

Memorial Day is an occasion to remember those who gave their lives in military service. Maybe it can also be a time to reflect on lives that were spared. The following post relates the circumstances and research for my biography Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess that linked together a 19th century Civil War naval officer, a 20th century American children’s author, and a 21st century biographer.

When children’s author and naturalist Thornton Burgess was born in 1874, the scars in his Cape Cod birthplace had barely begun to heal from Civil War tragedies. If hundreds of thousands of lives were lost by the war’s end in April, 1865, millions more were devastated as families and communities struggled to adjust to missing, dead and maimed sons, husbands, fathers, friends, local leaders, tradesmen, and workers. There were fifty-six deaths in Burgess’ small hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts alone.

One Civil War veteran who returned home to Sandwich, perhaps miraculously, was Captain Charles I. Gibbs. As a naval officer he had survived fierce battles at Fort Jackson, New Orleans, Port Hudson, Vicksburg, Mobile Bay, and at the Union blockage of the Mississippi. He described the details of one engagement to a family member:

This morning we have passed Vicksburg, through one of the heaviest fires from rifled and shell guns that you can imagine… A man was knocked down and had his head split open so near me that we were touching each other. My old friend and messmate master’s mate Howard Moffatt, lost his left arm. I have also to report the death of Thomas Flaherty, formerly an operative in the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works. He had both legs and part of one hand shot off, and died in about an hour. He was knocked down by a shell while bravely fighting at his gun, and died a hero; without a murmur. I am safe and ready for another fight.

(Yarmouth Register, July 18, 1862, courtesy of Sandwich Archives)

The same year Gibbs was fighting at Vicksburg, his father-in-law, Henry Hunt, Esq. sold or gave a large, two-story house on School Street to his daughter, Louisa Antoinette Hunt, who was Gibb’s wife. In the early 1870s the Gibbses rented at least part of the house to a young couple, Caroline and Thornton Burgess. Both Charles and Thornton undoubtedly knew each other and it is not unlikely that they were distantly related.

During a January snowstorm in 1874, Caroline, pregnant with her first child, gave birth at home to Thornton W. Burgess, Jr. Three weeks later, her landlady Louisa, who was pregnant with her last child, one of six, gave birth to Rufus Marmaduke in Hyannis. Within a year, both Caroline’s husband and Louisa’s baby would be dead.

Lives change and people must revise dreams and expectations. A new widow, Caroline Burgess and her baby moved in with her uncle who lived nearby in the village. The Gibbses sold 6 School Street in 1875, however, they left behind something wonderful that was accidentally discovered 106 years later.

In 1981 my husband David and I bought the old house at 6 School Street which badly needed repair and refurbishing. One day we stopped to check on the progress of electrician Dave Gove who was working on wiring in the attic. He had gone home for the day, but left for us something on the hallway stairs. A note said he had found it under wooden floorboards in the attic.

It was a packet of letters, no envelopes, tied together with a slim, blue silk ribbon.

Flowing handwriting made by an ink-dipped pen suggested the letters’ antiquity, but the heading on the first page confirmed it: “U.S.S. Sloop of War Richmond, off Pas al Centro Mississippi, Sunday Nov. 10 A.D. 1861.” My excitement mounted as I struggled to decipher the writer’s words. I realized I was reading a first-person account of the Civil War.

Dear Lou,

Yesterday I received your letters dated Sept. 8 Oct. per the gunboat Ethan Allen which were the first letters which I have received from anyone. Last mail I sent you a very long letter and have nothing of interest to write this time as far as news goes. We have taken one little schooner since but she was of no account. She had on board eight or ten Mexicans who were trying to make their escape from New Orleans. We let them go on their way rejoicing. There is an enormous steamer now in sight up river but I do not think there is any hope of our having a chance to get a shot at her. We have certain news that there is a floating battery of 18 guns already for attacking us also one of 22 guns which is nearly ready and one of 15 guns on the stocks. We are now the only Ship at Pas al Centro and their batteries assisted by Steamers and battering Ram will be apt to give us all we can stand if they should attack us. We hear by those Mexicans which were in the schooner that our shell stove the Battering Ram aft so badly that two steamers were required to tow her up river, one on each side to keep her afloat. Capt. Pope has left the Richmond and gone home on sick leave, he was very feeble. I fear that he will not last long. I liked him much while he was here…

The author of the letters written in 1861 and 1862 was Captain Charles I. Gibbs. Within ten years he would become the landlord of young parents and a newborn baby, Thornton W. Burgess, whose biography I finished writing and saw published in 2013.

Capt. Gibbs’ natural, candid style of writing, keen observations, and obvious affection for his wife and friends in Sandwich added to the extraordinary first-hand description of the life of a Union officer aboard a 225-foot-long steamship engaged in major Civil War naval battles.

I felt like I was walking into a history book.

And I thought of my father, Lt. Commander Howard “Bud” Palmer, who was similarly a naval officer, less than a century later, on a troop landing ship (LST) engaged in another brutal and bloody war at Normandy in 1944, as well as at Anzio and Salerno. He too came home, safe if not sound, for his back was broken when a torpedo hit the ship. (Read my post “War, Honor, and My Cousin Phil”)

Today, Memorial Day 2015, I honor those countless numbers who died in the service of their country, but I especially remember and am thankful for two who lived: Captain Charles I. Gibbs and Lieutenant Commander Bud Palmer who returned from terrible wars to those who dearly loved them.

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