Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Emma's Letters

Emma Angeline Whitcher was born in 1845. She was my great-great-grandmother, mother of Minnie, mother of Ruth, mother of my father. Among the family possessions are letters that 16 year old Emma wrote to Captain Charles Thompson, stationed in the same camp as her brother George Harrison Whitcher, during the Civil War. Charles and George were both in the 7th Michigan Infantry.
Emma’s letters were written on stationary embossed with a Union flag and seal, in the year 1862. Her handwriting was exquisite and easy to read except where the ink was faded. My father and I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by old photos and program books, picture frames and antique shelves. I read aloud words 150 years dead and forgotten. The story of a young girl and a man she was smitten with.
I don’t know if she knew Charles before her brother joined the war or not, and we don’t know when young George left Western New York to make a life for himself in Michigan. We know he was living there at the outbreak of the war. I wonder if Charles was a childhood friend from his hometown or a new friend he made in Michigan?
In the first letter, Emma chastised Charles, in what seemed like a very forward manner, for reading the letters she had sent to her brother, where she inquired about Charles and wanted to know more about him. Emma implied that her brother George was supposed to mask her desire for a “likeness” of Charles by suggesting the friends pose together for a sitting, so he might send it back home to his family.
Emma’s tone was both familiar and flippant, a brash young girl talking to an unknown man as if no social boundaries lay between them. At the same time she apologized for breaking social etiquettes in her reply. Emma asked Charles to forgive the fact that she did not wait the appropriate length of time before responding to his letter, but she wanted to address the wrong she felt was done. And then, as if to reinforce her interest, she sent him back a likeness of herself and hoped that he hadn’t built her up in his mind so elaborately that he was disappointed in the reality of her. I found her honesty and forthrightness fascinating.
She talked of her time spent sleigh riding and ice skating with family friends. She told Charles about the first soldier sent home to Lockport in a casket, and how all the fire wagons were draped in mourning cloths. The body was escorted home by seven soldiers and there was a procession through the entire length of town. She had never heard the “death march” before but she said she thought it was beautiful.
She mentioned that George said “a letter from home was better than dinner at noon” and then quipped that she doubted very much that her brother would pass up a meal for a letter from home in a playful voice. But her lightness belies her worry and fear for the war after the first soldier from town came home dead. She even goes so far at the end of the letter, keeping a light tone, to ask Charles if he would make sure George did not get shot in the back before he managed to write another letter home.
My Great-Great Grandmother apologizes to Charles for all of the “rail fences” in her letter. It took me a while to realize she meant all the misspelled words that she had crossed out lengthwise and then slashed top to bottom multiple times. Emma begs Charles to overlook them, as if she would normally have rewritten the letter before it was appropriate to be sent out. To me it speaks to a hastily written letter, important for her to post, a glimpse of how wartime changed some of the established social frameworks.

Isn't her script lovely? (Photo by Phillip R. Eaton)
George Harrison Whitcher enlisted in company A, Seventh Infantry, Port Huron, MI at the age of 19 in 1861. Emma and Charles Thompson exchanged letters during 1862, each one from her a bit more familiar and forward. George was killed in action at Gettysburg, PA on July 3, 1863 at the age of 21. As far as the family knows, his body was never recovered. A year later, on November 16, 1864, Emma married Hiram King Wicker.
The question we were left with, sitting at the kitchen table, was how these letters come to be back in Emma’s possession? Did Charles return them to her? Did he also die and they were returned to her? We double-checked that the letters were in fact postmarked and had been sent to Charles. I wondered if it was the death of her brother and the following bereavement on both their parts that saw them parting ways, for it seemed understood that Charles and George were close friends.
My father unearthed an old newspaper article a few days later and sent it to me, about how the Whitcher family had spent years and money searching for George’s remains. The article was about how Daniel Whitcher, a brother, received “a letter enclosed in which was a small metallic plate battered and covered with hard earth, in which was stenciled the dead soldier’s name.” It was news worthy enough to make the paper, a part of a dead soldier returned home, 1889.
A man went back to Gettysburg 26 years after the battle and found a piece of rifle that had been dug up from the battle field 3 years earlier, with George Whitcher’s name and infantry unit engraved on it. He sent it back to the family. It took me only a moment to recognize the name of the man who signed the letter, the man who returned to the spot where George Harrison Whitcher had died and not been found. A name that would have meant nothing to me without the letters that Emma had written.
It was from George’s friend Charles, who seemed to have his own pull towards finding closure. For himself? For the family? For his fallen brother-at-arms?

Port Huron, Mich., June 19, ‘89.
Daniel Whitcher,
            Dear Sir:--While at Gettysburg last week I came across the enclosed which was dug up about three years ago at the place where we stood on that memorable third of July, 1863, after being buried nearly 24 years. “Was the body of G. H. Whitcher recovered and taken home for burial?” I could not find his name among the dead in the National Cemetery.
C. Thompson,
Late Lt. Co. A, 7th, Mich., Vol.


  1. An hour after I posted this blog, I received an e-mail from a good friend of mine whose mother is a Whitcher- after comparing genealogies, we are related, hanging out on the same Thomas Whittier tree! Sharing our stories is important, especially in this age. We are all related, we are all kin, we are all invested in the journey together.

    1. Sarah Lyn,
      Contact me regarding your great-great grandfather Hiram K. Wicker.


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