Long post, but stay with me on this one. 🎩🏛🧦
As some of you may remember, last year we surveyed Chimborazo hospital (CSA) at the National Archives. After sifting through maps, surveying hospital fatalities and disease, and thumbing through endless special orders and correspondence from Chimborazo, we drove to Richmond, VA to see the hospital site for ourselves. The site is now a state park and none of the original 150 buildings (that made Chimborazo the largest and most advanced army medical facility in the world) still stand. However, standing on Chimborazo hill, looking down upon the James River and the RR, none of those buildings needed to be there- we could see them. I could almost hear the horses and the train whistle. All of those hours studying maps and the layout of the buildings paid off. It was simply, an unmatched, overwhelming, experience.
After we left Chimborazo, we went on a hunt to find the cemetery where most of the soldiers we surveyed had been laid to rest. Most of them in unmarked graves. When we pulled into the cemetery (using the new entrance which is on the opposite side of the CSA cemetery), there were only modern graves in site. By chance, we saw a little dirt road through a grove of trees, made some risky decisions in our rental car, and took the path. That little dirt road opened up into a grave yard of over 17,000 Confederate dead. We spent hours looking at unmarked graves, reading tombstones, and hoping to find just one name we recognized from our survey of fatalities at Chimborazo. No luck yet.
Then, there it was, and it was better than we ever expected. The grave marker of Silas M. Garrison, added sometime after the war (it was placed in front of his unmarked gravestone), stood out like a sore thumb in a graveyard of thousands of 4×4 marble grave markers that bore no names. His marker reads, “died April 24, 1862 at Chimborazo hospital.” There it was- our holy grail. I probably took 15 pictures of that headstone, one of which I have shared below. Finally, something more than a name on a page. This was physical, real evidence. That was a feeling I’ll never forget.
Yesterday at the archives in Montgomery, AL, I found a 1863 letter from a captain of the 14th Alabama regiment addressed to the ladies of a local relief society, thanking them for the warm socks, clothes, and lint they had sent to the soldiers. The captain expressed his appreciation for the societies continued support in supplies for all of their Alabama regiments. Several other letters confirmed the societies continued donations to Alabama regiments. I immediately thought of Silas Garrison- a soldier in the 9th Alabama infantry. Silas would have most likely worn those socks the captain was writing about had he not died at Chimborazo a year earlier.
I sat there in my seat, the same feeling radiating through me just as it had when I stood on Chimborazo hill overlooking the river and when we found Silas’ grave. I immediately turned to Ben, mouth open, a little teary eyed. THIS is why I do this. While I had stood at Silas’ grave, somehow the idea of him needing warm clothing and remembering that he died of pneumonia, was a very grounding experience. That was the moment, more than any other, that Silas became more than a name in my thesis.
For me as a historian, the goal is and always will be, to bring to life the names on the pages of all the documents I scour and examine. So many people think of historical figures almost as Gods, iconic figureheads, and characters in movies, but often forget they were real people. They were someone’s grandma, father, uncle, child. Understanding that comes with the very real responsibility of getting the narrative right. To tell their stories in ways they would be proud of based on the evidence and documents they left behind. The goal is to pluck them off the dull pages of history books, and present them as real, relatable, human beings.
Most importantly, the average American, such as most who fought in the Civil War, brother against brother, are not forgotten. The women who played such a monumental part in Civil War medicine, the community doctors who worked for free and housed sick soldiers, the mothers who buried her sons, those people went to war, too. It wasn’t just Lee, and Grant, and Lincoln and it was far more than North and South, black and white, free and slave. History is not that simple. The war, the motivations for it, it’s actions and consequences are complex. And more than anything, it was a human experience; men and women died, whole states burned, women and children became refugees- soldiers needed socks.
Today, we are headed to photograph Ft. Morgan, Alabama, the location of one of the CSA hospitals we surveyed last month at the National Archives. I am looking forward, as always, to making new connections and getting to know everyday Americans who unapologetically gave their lives for what they believed in.
I’m blessed beyond measure.