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Hey! That’s Aunt Fannie’s Violin! Treat it with adoration—err—respect!

Those of us who love history, research into arcane subjects, and stories of little known archeological digs on the Smithsonian Channel can sometimes get up a tree—get our feathers ruffled—get our noses of joint, whatever, over family treasures from the past.  Maybe everybody is that way, but I think my family seems about 15% more interested in curios from long-dead aunts and uncles and is willing to discuss them endlessly—and dispute over them too.

We venerate past possessions and they become the source of folklore stories, pioneer tales of questionable origin, the swapping of memories and sometimes differences of opinion.

I recently received an attachment with the pictured sewing machine, pretty slick looking, from my niece. She had inherited the machine from her mom, my sister, gone now and missed these three years. The niece told me her mom said it was the sewing machine of our mother, and had sat in our family home through our childhood, humming away to make us little outfits, shorts, and blouses.

“I hate to deflate your balloon,” I had to say. “The sewing machine in our childhood home was a black Singer with gold script writing, and it  came from about 1945.The one you have is from 1956—you can Google Singer machines by year and you’ll see it.  Our mother was gone by that time. And the reason Sister had that, I think,” I told the niece, “was that I gave it to her. I had bought the sewing machine the year after we were married, took lessons at Singer, and then was a miserable failure as a seamstress, leaving pins in your Uncle’s Christmas pajamas. I didn’t give up—got another one I think but didn’t use it.”

So my Sister had remembered wrong, who knows why? “Well, I’m just glad I don’t have to lug this heavy thing around any more,” my niece said.  So much for that myth. But my memory had failed me too. I gave my sister with some reverence another family treasure, a swan-shaped vase that I swore was Mother’s also from our childhood home. But after Sister took it, I recalled I had bought it earlier myself to match the original, for sentimental reasons. How many of these family pass-downs really have true stories connected to them? Does it really matter? Does anybody care?

I have four first cousins, all active, and not spring chickens. Our family is one of endless tales of southern Indiana, eccentric relatives, stories from childhood that our parents would either laugh uproariously at or stoutly deny ever happened.  Everybody remembers the tales from our own parents differently. Details are blurred, and I’m pretty sure stuff is being made up by us–the modern generational storytellers. This I have to admit.

Take the story of Aunt Fannie’s violin. It has turned up recently, and a photo of it sent around by the youngest first cousin, restored and looking pretty good. Our Aunt Fannie, bear in mind, was born in 1880 (or so) and was a respected and talented music teacher in Indianapolis. She carried her considerable weight well and dressed elegantly with ropes of pearls and medium-high heels. How beautiful her many rings looked at she ran her beautiful hands over the keyboard playing “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.” Aunt Fannie’s stories of Wheatland, Indiana, sent us into gales of laughter at Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. She was probably the influential person who started me on my own career of writing about southern Indiana history.

So now when this violin surfaced, there was a flurry of discussion of the past among the cousins.

“This violin must have gone with her as she changed homes with her four marriages.”

“It was five.”

“Who was that first one? John Light?”

“Jack Light. Jack is short for John.

“I never heard her call him John. Are you sure of that?”

He came to see her just before she died.”

“Well he was better than the others I think. Mom said they were bums.

“All except for the Spanish American War vet.”

“Why did he fight in that useless war?”

“Nobody much thought it was useless when they went to Havana.“

“Well none of us can use Aunt Fannie’s violin. The bow is falling apart. So ask the next generation.”

On and on.

We drew straws in the next generation, sort of, and now it rests with our daughter who is the family genealogist. She probably doesn’t really know or care about any of these stories about Aunt Fannie,  but she seems to have inherited the family desire for old stories and unidentifiable curios.

Nancy Niblack Baxter has written about Aunt Fannie’s father John R. McClure in her book Hoosier Farmboy in Lincoln’s Army available on Amazon.

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An exciting historical detective search: resurrecting a Civil War unit’s life

In this age of “cozy” Victorian detective stories and popular-reading thrillers starring CIA and police inspectors from all nations as heroes, those of us who have delved into the history of a specific Civil War unit know that it is one of the greatest “discover the mystery” searches of all.

Heroism, cowardice, hatred and pursuit of enemies, the search for power, romance, betrayal, and confrontations with death and maiming are all part of the story of a Civil War regiment or brigade, all contained within a four or five-year period. It is among many other things an exploration of the human condition.

At a recent presentation at the Indiana Historical Society I led a group of Civil War aficionados, twenty-five of them, who had come to talk about the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment. We ditched a good deal of the prepared speech, which followed the career of the Fourteenth, because many, most of these attendees knew the career quite well. These were serious Civil War enthusiasts, and they had come to deepen their knowledge of how a CW unit functions, fulfills its mission, excites our interest, and most of all transmits its heritage to the future. And they brought well-thumbed copies of the book on the regiment with them.

As author of Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of a Civil War Regiment, I was surprised at how many of these buffs had absorbed the detailed career of this group of Hoosiers of 150 years ago. The attendees had come from various parts of the state and beyond. One had followed not only the battlefield sites of the Iron Brigade with author Alan Nolan himself, but after my book came out had gone to all the sites where the Fourteenth had fought. He had followed the strategy of the Fourteenth’s commanders and walked where they had fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  A reenactor of the Fourteenth reenactment regiment of Rockport, one of the regiment’s home towns, told of the modern regiment’s activities at involving young people in the reenactments.

It was a real surprise and gratification to see that so many people cared about this group of 1,000 men who went off as boys, almost, in April of 1861 at Lincoln’s first call for troops after the firing on Sumter, and how the group fell in battle and died of disease and even deserted leaving only a “Skeleton Regiment” to return after the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. The group recognized that the men’s personal letters and feelings and reactions to sacrifices and suffering of their families back home were a real part of the detective story: who were they really as men? What were they willing to die for and why? And what had made them the people they were?

We all still don’t have the answers to all the questions about their superb motivation and patriotism, not really dimmed by the horrible realities of killing warfare and the disgusting fight for advancement among drunken officers—and all those other realities. But we do understand them as human beings: reading dime novels, fighting with each other, flanking chickens on farms, recovering the bodies of childhood companions for shipment home, going to Barnum’s Museum, throwing themselves fatally against the hill at Fredericksburg and storming the Confederate guns at Gettysburg.  That is what makes the search so rewarding. In my own particular story, the result of five years of detective searching in small and large libraries and in cemeteries and battlefields, I was captured for life by the personal, human stories of Indiana’s small towns and people in the 1860s. They captivated me and I have never really been able to leave the fascination. Others who want to learn of their ancestor’s trip through the war will experience the fascination.

Advice for deepening their search to these buffs and genealogy seekers: find small libraries with letter and diary collections from your ancestor’s unit, follow its career in the post-war history of the Adjutant General’s Report now digitized, look at the official reports of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, utilize the many digitized Civil War collections now on the net, access the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center’s library with its hundreds of Indiana Civil War documents. Consult the experts at the battlefield sites and follow their readings. And if you are at the beginning of your pilgrimage after the regiment, get your own ancestor’s career straight by taking the advice of Stephen Towne of the archives of IUPUI: use the old 3×5 cards of each Indiana soldier’s career at the Indiana State Library.

Yes, we are in a new multi-cultural society and need to care about the traditions and history of all of our many ethnic groups now, but there are lessons from our Indiana Civil War generation, the ancestors of many of us, that can still benefit us all today. It wasn’t for nothing that the despicable institution of slavery was destroyed, broken and that 200,000 men from Indiana went and 20,000 didn’t return.

Nancy Niblack Baxter’s books on the Civil War in addition to Gallant Fourteenth are available at Click back and order.

Posted in Books on Indiana, civil war |

Seventeen-year-old Charlie Gibson: The Face of the Civil War in Indiana

The recent exhibition opening at the Daviess County Museum, involving a set of letters recently presented to the museum from the Civil War period, focuses on a soldier who is one of a handful of ”just boys” in the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment. Charlie Gibson and a few others joined local neighborhood units to fight for the North by misrepresenting their ages—a soldier had to be eighteen.

Charlie had been attending Vincennes University, but left in April of 1861 to join C Company, the Martin Guards in the southern Indiana county with the same name. He signed the muster rolls with a group he knew quite well—his friends, with whom he had attended the Mount Pleasant Schoolhouse not far from Hindostan Falls in pioneering territory of the state. Most of the young men lived now at Loogootee nearby on the railroad.

He is described by his friend Will Houghton, who first was captain and later major of the Fourteenth, as being slight of build, with a sweet, honest disposition. Charlie and the “Devoted Little Band” as the Mt. Pleasant lads called themselves, went in October of 1861 with the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment, all from southern Indiana, to Rich Mountain, the first land battle of the Civil War. In that battle they were held in reserve. They stayed on Cheat Mountain in western Virginia, cold and sometimes hungry, fighting a couple of small battles and then came down to the Valley Campaign, chasing the elusive Stonewall Jackson. Charlie was made corporal, with many chores of a routine nature to supervise.

Charlie’s letters, five of them, show him as glad to be serving his nation and appreciating the comradeship of his boyhood friends, now all soldiers, but frustrated with the course of the war. Unusual for a seventeen-year-old, he shows himself hating the institution of war itself. After they fought the relatively important battle of Winchester in spring of 1862, he wrote home, lamenting the death of his neighbor Leopold McGuffin at Shiloh. He knows battles around New Orleans are going on and laments that there will be more: “ere this reaches you a big fight will take place and many a brave man’s life lost.”

He is a thoughtful young man, growing up rapidly. His Company C was decimated at the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. The horrible battle of Fredericksburg was looming in December of that year and after the Northern army’s defeat he writes home January 6, 1863, that he believes the South is formidable, seemingly impossible to defeat. He yearns for home but wants his relatives to know he is brave. “You said in your last ‘I am in for it and not to get discouraged.’ I never fear about that I think I can stand it—as for being discouraged I can’t say I am discouraged but—still I would like to see matters go on better. I have concluded this Army of the Potomac is a great humbug. . “

Still, there was good news. This boy, now two years older than he had been at recruitment time, has been named a second lieutenant. His reliability and character have been recognized.

The “Devoted Little Band” of friends and the rest of the regiment expressed congratulations: this lad had shown his mettle.

Spring came, and Charlie would have his first opportunity to lead the troops: the Battle of Chancellorsville was looming in an area called The Wilderness. The Fourteenth, now part of the famed Gibraltar Brigade, would lead the troops as they marched toward battle. Charlie’s promotional documents had not arrived; he looked forward to their coming. And he wrote home, Laura but very few of the original 14th are left out of our Co 101men 9 are left for duty and your brother is one of the number—what do you think of that—many have died, been killed, discharged and sick in hospital in Washington until lately Co. “C” was the largest Co in the Regiment—but now it is the smallest—we had 8 men on dress parade yesterday. It appears that the loss in Co C is always the largest of any Co in the regiment—at Fredericksburg the Regiment lost 12 killed and 5 of the 12 were from Co “C” the same at Antietam our loss was the heaviest of any in the Regt.

The Paymaster has to yet call around but—we are anxiously waiting for him and think we will be here soon. I suppose Capt Houghton will be at home before this letter reaches as he has a leave of absence. I do wish he was with us for I am sick and tired of our Dutch Lieut—he means well enough and tries to do everything right—but—don’t know how. Hugh Hopkins Ive not heard from lately but suppose his father will take him home as soon as he is able to travel that is if he ever will be able. Barney Berry will go home again I think Barney will resign as he will never be able for the service again.

How are you all getting along at home. I would like to drop in this evening and stay with you a short time would be very nice well they can’t hold us more than 15 months longer at farthest and then—what will I do have a nice time I think.

He would like to drop by that comfortable home to see his mother and father and sisters and brother, just for an evening. He looks forward to the time he will do that in fifteen months.

Still, his friends from home noted that he seemed thoughtful, quiet.

In a beautiful springtime May day the troops were positioned; then, unexpectedly, in the clearing where they lay idle, the troops of Eleventh Corps rushed into the clearing: Jackson had attacked them and they had fled. That night the regiment lay tensely on their arms.

The next day Charlie Gibson prepared for his first day leading troops. The new second lieutenant waited with the rest of the army to go into battle.

Here’s how Major Will Houghton described the scene just as battle was to begin.

Carrol rode to his place in line and in his soul stirring voice called “Attention! Battalion. The battalion of direction—column forward.” The bugle sounded MARCH and the column moved forward. It was the finest sight I’ve witnessed. Hooker, Mead, Howard and French were all looking on and the interest was intense. We moved in splendid line and on the Rebels as soon as we entered the woods. We gave the first volley and the first cheer and. . . the Rebels ran.

But in that advance Charlie Gibson of Company C fell, leading the troops for the first time. The rest of the Devoted Little Band slipped away from the battle as they could to comfort him; he died the next day of an abdominal wound. Houghton and others of his friends buried him.

But there’s more, and it’s as shocking as many of these battlefield stories from the war: after four days the friends had to go and disinter Charlie Gibson to send home to his father and mother, whom they had promised. It was a ghastly experience.

The friends wrote to his family, agonized that this young boy has paid the price of war with his life at the very moment he was being rewarded.

Some contended the body hadn’t been well handled. Hougton wrote this:

With Charlie I have shared all the toils, cares and stages of two years in the tent and field. The same pillow served us both & the same blanket shielded us from the cold &storms. I would rather my right arm had withered to the shoulder than have it said I failed to attend him when he was wounded, suffering, dying. By Sallie’s letter I see you have the impression that it rained the day he died. I do not remember its raining where we were. I think the day was a warm and pleasant Sunday, the day he was wounded was a beautiful day—Capt Hopkins will be at home before you see this. He takes some stripes belonging to Charlie. I sent his commission by mail. I hope it has arrived safely.

I would be pleased to hear from you should you conclude to write. Give my kindest regards to Mr. and Mrs. Gibson, Sallie, Willie All.

All praised him as one of the finest soldiers the regiment produced. The others from the schoolhouse band would return home to places of honor and achievement in the post-war world. But not this young man.

In most units there was a Charlie Gibson. Probably several. Twenty thousand young men did not come back from the 200,000 who served from the state.

But looking at him we can see what the little town, the state and the nation suffered in this cruelest of all wars. It’s small consolation that Charlie himself saw the futility of it all but served his nation nobly anyway.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor, Hawthorne Publishing. Baxter’s book Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment can be ordered from the site: click back.

Posted in Books on Indiana, civil war |

Bringing a Museum into the 21st century: Daviess County Museum in process

De-accessioning is a stuffy-sounding, curator-talk word, but it plays a vital part in bringing museums up to date. It means analyzing old exhibits that have stood on shelves or stayed in environments which weren’t climate controlled for years and removing them from a museum’s collection. Can any of the exhibits from an old, closed museum be saved? Of course, and many were at Indiana’s Daviess County Museum. The loving work of collecting treasures from a specific neighborhood and then preserving them by loyal care-takers of the past should be recognized if possible—and updated.

But in the case of the museum in Washington, Indiana, some exhibits, sadly, had to go. Beck Kremp of the volunteers at Washington, Indiana who are retoring the museum. sends photos of a collection dear to her heart: Becky is a doll collector. But this large collection of dolls had been neglected for many years. When Indiana Historical Society county history people came to Washington to give advice, they shook their heads. The dolls had been held in several different locations and there had been heat and flooding. It didn’t look good.

Here is how Becky describes what happened next:

In all likelihood, these almost 400 dolls would have been deaccessioned anyway, since they had no connection at all to Daviess County history and are primarily vinyl and plastics from the 70s and 80s; however, there are collectors for these babies who would have loved to purchase them.  We have photos of them in pristine condition at the Jefferson School museum prior to flooding.  Instead of drying them after that flood and discarding what was ruined, all dolls were thrown into large paper towel cardboard boxes, not inventoried and packed away in the top of the 4th floor at the museum where they cooked from about 2005 until 2015..  My husband and I suited up and covered an area with plastic, wore masks and gloves and the state had us get rid of them as hazardous waste.  Very sad.

Four hundred colls which could have been sold to collectors for the good of the museum. It’s a good lesson in finding out the best practice in museum care of exhibits and manuscripts, for those of us who have collections, either public or private.

Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing

Nancy Baxter is the author of eleven books on Indiana history. To order some of them, click back to the website.




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