Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teach Them Nothing You Wish Them to Unlearn

On July 4, 1863, James McKill, Confederate Army Captain from Missouri, was taken prisoner of war by the Union Army. He was held for a total of 21 months, until the end of the war. Captain McKill was my great-great-great grandfather. 

On November 14, 1863, he arrived at the prison on Johnson's Island in Ohio. Here, in a letter to his wife, are his own words.

(To fully experience this post, you need to listen to this right now as you read! No excuses.)

Dear Wife. . .November 14th, a cold rainy day, the rain coming down in true fall style, between fifty and sixty of us were ordered to be ready in two hours for a move. Accordingly, at 10 a.m., we were called out, a guard placed around us, and away we started on foot, through the rain and mud for Columbus. Part of which way we were marched double quick, to be in time for the train. While marching through the streets of Columbus, I could hardly fail to contrast my present, with a former visit to this city twenty-six years ago. Then I was a happy boy of seven years. My time here was spent in a quiet house on the outskirts of the town, overlooking the tranquil Scioto. A kind father, an indulgent mother, and a dear brother were then beside me, each doing for me, all that duty bid, or affections prompted. But now, I am here as a prisoner of war, wet, weary and covered with mud, hurried through the streets, with the idle and curious gazing at me from every window and door. 

. . .At half past eight p.m., we were consigned to Johnson Island's Prison, wet, cold, and hungry. We had eaten nothing since early breakfast, but no food was given us. No lights or fires being permitted after 9:00, we were necessarily compelled to look around in haste for a place to sleep. We (that is, my bunk mate and I), at length, found an empty bunk. We spread our wet blankets upon the boards, and turned in to rest our wearied frames in sleep or to ruminate upon the vicissitudes of life, whichever might best suit our feelings. 

Our food, although plain, is wholesome and in quantity, sufficient. The number of prisoners occupying each block is about 180. They are, I believe, all officers and of all ranks from 3rd Lt. to Major General and there is no state in Dixie from Virginia to Texas, from Georgia to Missouri, but what is well represented, as also every trade and occupation followed by man in civilized life. Here is the Legislator who has vacated his seat in the hall. Here is the Farmer, whose broad fields are left untilled. Here is the Minister whose voice is no more heard in the sanctuary of the Lord. Here is the Lawyer whose briefs and law books together lie molding on the dusty shelf. Here is the Merchant, the Mechanic, the Grocer Clerks. . . Our occupations here are almost as varied as formerly-- Cooking, Washing, (I have become a pretty fair washerman), and Ironing. Also, the Jewelers trade has a great run at present, almost to every man, having become proficient in the art. I have done something in my leisure moments, having made a ring for you, a breast pin for little Ella, and am now at work on one for Monroe. These I think I shall keep and have the pleasure of presenting you when first we meet.

Fourteen months have fled, Dear Wife, since we parted last. Since then, I have been much exposed to danger and disease. I have twice stood on the bloody battlefield and saw men by the score hurried to their last accounts. I have been where hundreds have sickened and died, but in all this time, no danger has harmed me, no disease has prostrated me. I see from your letters that yourself and my family have also been spared. I should be thankful to God for all this, and trust that I am. 
Belle McKill, wife of James

Now, Dear Wife, the time may be long or it may be short 'ere we meet again. Not knowing which, let us constantly put our trust in God and pray that He will speedily send us peace and restore us again to each others' society. Those little babes of ours, I know you love equally as much, if not more, than I do or can, but Dear Wife, do not-- because I am absent-- hasten them to their lust. Cultivate in them moral as well as their mental facilities. Teach them nothing that you would wish them to unlearn. Teach them to hate falsehood, to love truth, and walk in the ways of virtue. Tell my aged mother, I long to see her once more. I would, that I could, be with her to comfort her and protect her in her declining years, and return to her, at least in part, that core and affection which she for so many years bestowed upon her wayward boy. 

. . .In conclusion, Dear Wife, what shall I say to you-- that I long to see you, or that I love you? No, but that such so I have been for nine years past, I will still remain while life shall last. 

Your husband,
James McKill

Prisoners on Johnson's Island were treated pretty well. At first, prisoners were kept only about 5 months, but those who came later (as McKill) were kept up to 16 months. Prisoners found ways to prevent boredom, which was one of the worst conditions they suffered. They wrote letters, kept diaries, and participated in original theatrical productions. They also kept autograph albums, signed by prisoners, including their ranks, service, addresses, and where they were captured. Many played baseball, chess and checkers, and were even able to garden. Prisoners took to writing poems to express their feelings. We have a few that McKill wrote during his time there. 

Originally, letters were only allowed to be one page. But Missouri General M. Jeff Thompson struck a secret deal, offering to pay the censors 2.5 cents for each page read in the evenings. The scheme worked well until a prisoner complained to a Commandant he had to pay a dime tax to receive a four-page-letter. The matter was investigated, and the one-page rule was put back in effect. 

This probably explains why all of McKill's letters after this first one appear to be about the same length, probably a handwritten page. 

Captain McKill returned to his family at the end of the war. He never intended to join the war, but he was in a unique situation. Living on the Missouri/Kansas border, he felt it was the only way to save his farm and those of his neighbors. The reasons for war were complicated, and many were thrust into choosing a side. It was a terrible time for all. I am thankful my ancestor made it home, but I ache for all the families who never saw their soldiers again. 

(Prison information taken from the Johnson's Island website).

(The letters and family pictures were taken from a book edited by a family member. I have further edited the words of the letter to be more understandable).

Have you found any old family letters? Have you discovered anything interesting from them?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Distracted by Blondie

Look closely to see two elk. Or just take my word for it.
I would hate to leave my summer vacation dangling in space. As you may recall, we had just ridden the river and were contemplating leaving the ranch in the morning. Or possibly, you may not recall this at all. Whatever. Either way, I hope you can appreciate what my horseback-riding experience had to offer in the way of a life/writing analogy.

My daughter and I headed down the mountain from our cabin to join the few others for our morning horseback ride. After watching a video in which, once again, we were told our lives could be on the line in this risky activity, we met our horses! She had a sweet little guy named Junior, and I had a strong, sturdy dude named Buck. The view from atop a horse is so different. Suddenly, trust becomes real, since other feet besides yours are touching the ground. Those feet are going to carry you, or not. Wherever they ultimately go, that's where you're going, like it or not. *Analogy #1: Get out of your comfort zone now and then if you want to see a new perspective. Feeling stuck? Look through someone else's eyes.

We began our slow, steady climb up the rocky paths and green pastures of the mountainous ranch. Slow it was, since every horse wanted to eat instead of walk. This was no head-to-butt ride up a narrow trail. These horses were free and relaxed, which meant we only had to keep up with the group. There was even a horse-in-training. She had no rider and no one leading her. She simply followed along with the group. She was beautifully golden, young, smart, trim, and her name was Blondie. 

Buck did not like Blondie. For whatever reason, he did not appreciate her behind him, and actually snapped at her. Did he think she was going to nip at him? Hurry him along? Did they have issues back at the corral? I don't know. I just tried to steer clear of her when possible. *Analogy #2: Jealousy and worrying about what other people are doing will get you nowhere. You will look silly if you lash out in front of your herd. You can't compare your strengths to someone who's in a different place than you. And most likely, they aren't doing what you think they're doing behind your back.

Buck liked to procrastinate. He'd eat as much as he could, ignoring my pleas to keep up. Then, when the horse ahead just turned the corner, Buck would run to catch up. Our Guide would occasionally stop to make sure everyone was still with him. Then we'd all ride on, trying to keep from getting brushed off our horses by the overpassing trees and shrubs. At one point, my daughter had finally had enough of keeping it under control on this long-and-getting-longer ride (and she had hurt her hand on the saddle). I stopped with her, just long enough to see her cry and then my Buck sailed on by, without an ounce of sympathy. We called the Guide, who rode over and gently talked to her. As sweet as could be, he took Junior's reins and led them on the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Buck, Blondie, and I somehow ended up toward the back of the group.

I tried to keep an eye on that Vixen. So did Buck. I coaxed him to get back up with the group, to no avail. I had lost all control, and danger was imminent. As long as she stayed away, Buck contentedly ate the grass. I talked soothingly to him, patting him. Let's go, boy. She means nothing to you. She's just in training, hoping to be like you someday. Then Blondie galloped past us, with her brown mane and tan legs flying. Buck was having none of that. As much as he hated her behind us, he did not like her passing him up. I let out a scream as he galloped down the steep, rocky path. The Guide said that I came around the corner, hanging on, bouncing sideways out of the saddle. My heart pounded, my legs shook. He calmly came toward us.

Buck stopped short upon hearing the Guide's voice. I informed him that Buck did not like Blondie. She was distracting and annoying. He pulled Buck to the front of the group, away from that chick. He asked if I would like him to guide us the rest of the way. "Yes," I squeaked. 
*Analogy #3: When you find yourself falling, find that expert who can help you back on. When you find your control and confidence again, you can take the next step.

Our Guide was expert enough to ride his own horse, while leading BOTH Junior and Buck. We had a great rest of the ride, just chatting, not worrying about the horses. I don't even know where Blondie went after that. I just know we were more than ready to get a drink and get back to the ground. 

Isn't he cute?
A dirty, crusty little border collie ran along with us the whole way. He zipped in and out amongst the horses, always keeping his Master within his sight. Clearly, that dog lived for these rides and loved every minute of it. On the final stretch of rocky road, the Guide simply put his hand down and pointed, not saying a word. The dog sat. We rode on and still that dog sat. I looked back several times. He laid down, one black-and-white ear sticking up. After a couple minutes, the Guide whistled ever so slightly, and that collie came running until he caught up to us again. What a faithful little dog. 
*Analogy #4: You can hear all kinds of things, from different people, good and bad. Until you cut through the noise and listen to yourself, you'll only be doing what other people want. Do it for yourself. 
What are the Blondies in your life? Distracting you, annoying you, keeping you from your goal? Are you doing it for yourself? Or someone else?