Do you make good coffee?

In August of 1863, Union Army Sgt. Edwin Lybarger was on provost guard in Memphis Tennessee with his regiment, the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He advertised in the newspaper for a correspondent of the Fair Sex for “agreeable, interesting and useful correspondence.” His diary gives some indication that he did it on a dare with his friend, Co. K Captain John Rhodes.

Edwin received a reply from a young lady signing herself “Fannie Jerome.” After they had exchanged several letters, “Fannie” revealed her real name to be Lou Riggen. He confessed his real name, and they continued to correspond for the duration of the war. She seems to have resisted his appeals to send him her “likeness” (photograph).

In 1864, he wrote to Lou to learn more details about her accomplishments, abilities, and sensibilities:

Do you like music? Play on the piano? Can you bake bread?

Can you bake mince pies? Make good coffee?

Keep house? Can you eat your share of a dinner?

Do you like History, Poetry, or Novels best?

What church to you belong to?

On Sept. 29, 1864, Lou Riggen answered his letter:

Keep house? I once kept house for six months to the edification of the whole family except Lou Riggen. My! what an endless task of intricate labor. Brooms, carpets, beds, cobwebs, dinners, suppers, breakfasts, with all their attendant auxiliaries of good butter, sweet milk, done bread & not burnt either. ‘To be or not to be’ good was always the dread question until dinner stood in all its dread array on the table. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t.

Edwin and Lou corresponded for the rest of the war. Their plan to meet on his way home in the summer of 1865 was not accomplished. He continued to correspond with Lou after returning to Ohio and, apparently reluctant to end their correspondence, finally told her had married another girl. Her response, her last letter, eloquently expresses her dismay that he had ignored her request to return her letters to her.

The letters written to Union officer Edwin Lybarger from 1862-1866

by Lou Riggen and other women,

are published, with historical social commentary, in

WANTED–CORRESPONDENCE:

Letters to a Union Soldier (Swallow Press, 2009).

Portraits of heroes

After the Civil War, my great-grandfather Edwin L. Lybarger compiled a portrait album of the Union Army commanders and friends he admired. The album has a tooled, hard leather cover and measures 5″ wide, 6″ high and 2″ thick, latched with two elaborate gold hinges. The album contains one carte de visite per page, each in its own gold-edged pocket. A numbered index identifies most of the photographs, although some need no introduction.

Page 1: Abraham Lincoln

Edwin Lybarger was a staunch Lincoln supporter. From his diary:

Nov. 8, 1864: In camp near Marietta, Ga. Election day. Voted for “Ole Abe.”

From Wisconsin soldier Ed Leving’s diary: “A soldier who votes for McClellan, is looked upon by his comrades as an ignoramus or a coward & wants to get out of the service & so votes for McClellan.”

The former Union general of the Army of the Potomac was the Peace Democrats’ candidate, and veteran soldiers wanted nothing to do with him or his party. President Lincoln was re-elected with the vote of 86% of the soldiers, and 55% of the total vote. Within a week, Sherman led his army on the March to the Sea. (from The March to the Sea and Beyond by Joseph Glathaar, 1985)

Page 3: Gen. William T. Sherman

In his diary, Edwin records the night of March 5, 1865 in Cheraw, South Carolina, when he met Gen. Sherman face to face and was impressed by the general’s “colloquial powers.”

Page 4: Brig. Gen. James McPherson

During the Union’s Atlanta campaign in 1864, McPherson took command of the Army of theTennessee, reporting to Gen. Sherman.

From Lt. Edwin Lybarger’s diary:

June 22, 1864: Moved from Roswell Ga.to the front. The Army of the Tenn. attacked by the rebs. Gen. McPherson killed. The enemy repulsed with terrible slaughter. Our Brigade (Sprague’s) driven out of Decaturwith a loss of 254 men. The 43rd came up too late to participate.

June 23: Marched in to Decatur found the enemy had left. Buried our dead and brought off our wounded. Tore up the railroads for twenty miles towards Augusta Ga.

Page 5: Col. John Fuller

From Aug. 1861, Fuller was colonel of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment with six month’s experience in the field by March 1862, when Edwin’s 43rd OVI left Ohio for the first time and arrived in Missouri. Gen. Pope, commanding the Army of the Mississippi, banded the 27th Ohio, 39th Ohio, 43rd Ohio and 63rd Ohiointo a brigade. In July 1862, Col. Fuller, formerly a book publisher in Toledo, Ohio, was given command of the Ohio Brigade.

Page 10: Col. Joseph L. Kirby Smith, 43rdOhio Volunteer Infantry (1862)

Colonel Smith, a West Point and Pennsylvania man, was the first colonel of the 43rd OVI, greatly admired by the Ohio men in his command. At the second Battle of Corinth, on Oct. 4, 1862 he was shot in the head and fell from his white horse while rallying the regiment. Amid the hard-fought battle, word swept the regiment that Smith had been killed. Lt. Col. Wager Swayne filled the breach to rally the stunned regiment and successfully defend Battery Robinett, helping the Union win the battle. To the regiment’s relief, Col. Smith had not been killed on the field, but sadly succumbed to his moral wounds on Oct. 12, 1862.

Page 11: Col. Wager Swayne, 43rdOhio Volunteer Infantry (1862-1865)

A lieutenant colonel in the 43rd OVI during the second Battle of Corinth that mortally wounded Col. Smith, Swayne became its colonel after Col. Smith died. On Feb. 3, 1865, Swayne was severely wounded while crossing the swampy Salkahatchie River in South Carolina. While helped to an ambulance wagon, he kept repeating, “The Lord sustains me.” He was successfully evacuated to New York City, losing his leg but surviving.

My great-grandfather admired Swayne more than any other officer, as evidence that he named his only son Harry Swayne Lybarger. Family documents include a letter from Swayne to Edwin and his first wife Sophronia after the war, assuring him that he’s very much looking forward to meeting “little Wager,” presumably an infant son who was his namesake. But little Wager must have died in infancy; the  family has no other evidence or information about him. Edwin and Sophronia had no other children before her death in 1882.

Harry Swayne Lybarger, born in Spring Mountain, Ohio, was Edwin’s only child with his second wife, Nancy Moore, born when she was 44 years old and Edwin was 48. Years later, Harry wrote: “I met the great Colonel Swayne once at Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1897, when he came from his law office in New York City to attend the Grand Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic of Ohio, the year my father was its commander.”

Page 12: Col. Horace Park, 43rd OVI (1865)

Park began the war as captain of Company F in the 43rd OVI, from Oct. 1861, an indication that he helped to raise the company (100 volunteers). He was the regiment’s lieutenant colonel when Col. Swayne was wounded in South Carolina, assumed command and was promoted to colonel. He mustered out with the regiment on July 13, 1865.

Page 14: Lt. Col. John H. Rhodes, 43rd OVI (and former Co. K captain)

John Rhodes began the war as a sergeant in Company B of the 43rd regiment, then became captain of Company K in early 1862, after the illness and resignation of the first (and recruiting) captain, William Walker. Rhodes was a lieutenant colonel of the regiment by the end of the war, and mustered out with the regiment on July 13, 1865.

A sketch of Sgt. Edwin Lybarger reading an Army manual is signed “J.H.Rhodes.”

John Rhodes and Edwin Lybarger remained lifelong friends.

Page 16: Dr. Francis M. Rose, Surgeon, 43rd OVI (1862-1865). Dr. Rose probably saved Edwin’s life and leg after he was wounded at the 2nd Battle of Corinth in 1862.

Women’s Deadly, Unsung War Work

“Choking cartridges” for the Union Army was legitimate war work for “noble Union girls” during the Civil War. The repetitive work required putting lead balls into a paper tube, filling the tube with gunpowder, and tying up both ends. Spilled gunpowder was swept up often during the day, the women wore special shoes, and movement was restricted. But with and without safety precautions, this essential wartime munitions work claimed the lives of nearly 100 women  in explosions as fiery and fierce as any on a battlefield.

By October of 1861, Watertown, Massachusetts federal arsenal commander Col. Thomas Rodman listed 158 women on the roll books as cartridge formers. They were often sisters or wives of men employed at the arsenal; 18-year-old Violet Smith, her brother, and her sister supported themselves and their mother by working at the arsenal while their father was away at war.

Many of the new arsenal workers had been domestics, washerwomen, or dressmakers. Some had sewn clothing for the U.S. Army, jobs most often claimed by widows or sisters of soldiers. But cartridge formers earned the most money, from $14 to $25 a month for long hours, six days a week. Some stitched cartridge bags at home for 2 cents a piece. Camaraderie was reportedly high among the women, because of the importance of their work to the Union Army.

At the U.S. Army’s Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, the Colonel of Ordinance, John Symington, preferred to hire girls as cartridge formers, after boys had proven too careless with safety precautions.

On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, a series of explosions ripped through the arsenal, loud enough to be heard in Pittsburgh two miles away. Some people thought it was a Confederate attack. Those who rushed to the scene, reported the Pittsburgh Gazette, found “an appalling sight.” The arsenal’s roof had collapsed and the laboratory was in flames. “Girls ran screaming in terror and agony from the building with their clothes on fire and their faces blackened and unrecognizable. As the building burned, women jumped from the windows, and others were trampled underfoot by terrified women trying to escape. Witnesses tried to help fleeing women who pleaded with onlookers to tear burning clothes from their bodies.”

Mary Jane Black worked at the arsenal, but had left her post to collect her pay right before the explosion. When she heard screams and saw, “two girls behind me; they were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other one ran up and begged me to cover her.” A few bones and the steel bands used to stiffen their hoop skirts were all that was left of some victims. Limbs, bones, clothing, and bodies were found hundreds of feet from the explosion, on the streets and in the Allegheny River. Many could not be identified, and were buried in a mass grave.

The explosion was probably caused by the metal shoe of a horse striking a spark which touched off loose powder in the roadway near the lab, which then traveled to the porch and set off several barrels of gunpowder, which may have been uncovered. The barrels may also have been re-used and leaking powder. On Sept. 17, 1862, the coroner’s jury held that the accident was caused by the “gross negligence” of Col. John Symington and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere.

In September of 1862, the tragedy of twenty thousand dead in the Battle of Antietam, the most casualties in a single day of the entire Civil War, forever overshadows the tragedy of the most civilian deaths in a single day, the 78 workers at the U.S. Alleghany Arsenal in Pennsylvania.

Sources include: Travelchannel.com; Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 1, 2008; Harper’s Weekly, July 20, 1861.

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Facts to Fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer,

inspired by these historical facts & Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.