July 18, 2014 by kristin
When I was 10 or 11, one of my favorite books was The Last Silk Dress by Ann Rinaldi. It was about 14-year-old Susan Chilmark, living in Civil War-era Richmond, Va., and torn between her loyalty to the South and her growing conviction that everything the South was fighting for was wrong. I’m sure reading this book dozens of times planted the seed for my own novel about a teenage nurse in the Civil War.
Then today I discovered two of my third-great-uncles, William and Newton Crenshaw, were patients at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, where Susan and her mother volunteered in The Last Silk Dress.
William was shot in the thigh at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, ended up at the largest hospital in the South, and was later discharged “by reason of disability.” That same month, Newton went to Chimborazo for “diarrhea.”
William and Newton were two of five Crenshaw brothers who fought for the Confederacy in various South Carolina regiments. Some were conscripts, some volunteers. Most were farmers, and all under 30.
Hezekiah, my third-great-grandfather, known as “Kie,” fought in several battles without major injury or illness, and was captured at Petersburg in the last month of the war.
Samuel was captured at Falling Waters in 1863 and spent almost two years as a prisoner of war, much of that time in “Hellmira” prison in New York.
Henry, the youngest, died of diphtheria at age 20, in a different Richmond hospital.
Four out of the five boys made it home, got married and had lots of children. But Henry’s spot on the family tree is empty – no wife, no kids, no census records beyond 1860, not even a gravestone.
I wonder how his older brothers felt, knowing they all lived and he died. I wonder if their mother told them to look out for him, and if they felt they’d failed her. I wonder if any of them was with him when he died, or if they were all somewhere far away, feverish or fighting in their own hellish version of the War.
This is why I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War, since the first time I learned about it in elementary school, since before I read about the fictional Susan Chilmark. For me, for many of us, Civil War stories are our family stories, whether we know it or not. It was only a few generations ago, and its repercussions can still be felt everywhere.
I’m only here today because my third-great-grandfather Hezekiah was not the brother who died.
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