It has been a dream of my mother, Evelyn Taylor, to see Gettysburg's Little Round Top where her relative, Martin Laufer, fought and to visit the places my father's ancestors, Reuben and James Tilton, mentioned in their war letters. This past June her dream was realized. Vanessa and I accompanied Mom on her journey to Gettysburg and along the Shenandoah.
My family knows very little about Martin Laufer. He is Mom's great-grandfather on her father's side. He supported his wife and three children as a piano maker in Rochester, New York. On August 26, 1862, at age 27 he enlisted in the 140th NY Infantry, Co. B. Like so many in his unit, he had emigrated from Germany. At Weldon Railroad (August 18, 1864), he was captured and spent time at Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. On June 3, 1865 he was mustered out at a camp near Washington, Virginia.
Our first stop on our trip was Little Round Top, where a number of historical plaques and a monument recognize the 140th's contribution to holding the ground. The hill and countryside this hot and humid day were calm and still, but we could see those gallant men under the command of Patrick O'Rourke, rushing down the hill through the trees, crouching behind the breastworks and the boulders strewn about on the hillside where they faced the enemy. We could hear the roar of cannons, the noise of muskets and shouting men; see the smoke and falling bodies of men and horses as they turned the tide of the battle at Gettysburg. It was at once, a chilling and proud moment for all of us.
What we know about Reuben and James Tilton was gleaned from government war records and 75 of the letters they wrote home to their parents during the War. Hailing from Johnsonsburg, New York, the two brothers served together in Co. G of the 9th NY Cavalry. James served from September 25, 1864 to June 6, 1865, and Reuben from October 12, 1864 to July 1865.
While Reuben and James never participated in any battles (as best we can tell) their letters are full of flavor and details of a soldier's life. They speak of concerns for family members back home, the farm, care and treatment of the horses and the family's cheese factory. There are requests for particular food items (butter, dried fruit, cheese and a little tea - no cakes or pies, please) to be sent with their father, Obadiah, when he visits them. Foraging for food, such as, black raspberries and cherries or stealing three chickens out of a barn and milking a cow on the sly were also mentioned. Both of them wrote about the hanging of a Negro not far from Winchester. There's talk of Mosby's raiders and the paroling of Confederate soldiers. They included the lyrics to "Little Octoroon," which they intended to teach their parents when they saw them next. Boredom was also prevalent. They had picket duty every other day. Many of their letters are from Remount Camp where they are waiting (and waiting some more) for fresh mounts since their horses have been condemned. Here, Reuben and James slept nine to a tent. They spent their evenings playing cards, writing, and talking with other soldiers. Occasionally, there was a game of ball or a dance to attend. Finally, they wrote of the end of the war--"the capture of Old Jeff," the surrender of General Lee and his army, and the camp's celebration.
Prior to our trip, Mom had selected some of their letters that mentioned specific locales. When we got to one of those locations along our journey, we stopped and read that particular letter. Our first reading was outside of Harper's Ferry at Lovettsville, followed by Winchester, New Market and our final stop, Mt. Jackson. Unbeknownst to Mom, she had chosen the perfect letter to wrap up our journey. Reuben and James had just spent a week riding up and down the Shenandoah Valley paroling Confederates. Their letter mentioned the same villages we had driven through that very day: Middletown, Strasburg, Edinburg and New Market. We all felt a real connection to them, to the past, and to what Reuben wrote in one of his letters, "Give my love to all good union people."
Pamela, Evelyn and Vanessa
Last Updated on 4/3/04