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Sunday, November 27, 2011

“Come On, You Brave Yank”


The Civil War, the bloodiest battle in our nation’s history, is also known as the war that divided families, with brother literally taking up arms against brother.  History records a number of stories about brothers fighting on opposite sides of the conflict, one brother dressed in Union blue and the other in Confederate gray.  At the Battle of Front Royal, Captain William Goldsborough of the Confederate First Maryland Infantry captured his brother Charles Goldsborough, a Union soldier fighting with the Union First Maryland Infantry and took him prisoner.  Another Confederate, a brigadier general, James B. Terrill, was killed at the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek, while his brother, William R. Terrill, a Union brigadier general was killed at the Battle of Perryville.  The Gammell family was one of many families who faced the same predicament.

Henry Wylie, half brother of James Gammell, was employed at Sanford Blackinton’s woolen mill when the Civil War began.  A government contract for blue wool cloth for army uniforms kept the mill open day and night to fill the orders.  In October 1861, the mill was earning a profit of about one thousand dollars a day.  Henry soon left his work at the mill to serve in the Union army, 1st Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.  That same year Henry’s half brother Andrew F. Gammell, who was living in Texas, joined the Confederate army, Second Texas Infantry.  Fortunately the two brothers never faced each other on opposite sides of the same battle.

In contrast to the unbelievable carnage that resulted from the four-year war, there were also some inspiring stories of compassion and camaraderie between enemies.  At times during the fierce fighting, the soldiers stopped to remember that they were all brothers.  One of those well-known incidents occurred at the Battle of Vicksburg.  Andrew Gammell and his fellow Texas Sharpshooters were defending the Confederate fortification known as the Second Texas Lunette.

The assault upon that part of the embankment at Vicksburg was made by the Ninety-ninth Illinois and four other Union regiments.  On May 22, 1863, Private Thomas Higgins, a big, strong, athletic Irishman, requested the privilege of carrying the flag for the day in place of the color bearer, who had been wounded.  The captain gave him permission and handed over the standard, telling him, “Don’t stop until you get into the Confederate works.”  Higgins obeyed this order literally.

Charles I. Evans, an ex-Confederate soldier of the Second Texas, later recorded how bravely Private Higgins carried out the order of his superior officer.

The following is Charles I. Evans' account:

After a most terrific cannonading of two hours, during which the very earth rocked and pulsated like a thing of life, the head of the charging column appeared above the brow of the hill, about 100 yards in front of the breast works, and, as line after line of blue came in sight over the hill, it presented the grandest spectacle the eye of a soldier ever beheld.  The Texans were prepared to meet it however, for, in addition to our Springfield rifles, each man was provided with five additional smooth-bore muskets, charged with buck and ball.

When the first line was within fifty paces of the works, the order to fire ran along the trenches, and was responded to as from one gun.  As fast as practiced hands could gather them up, one after another, the muskets were brought to bear.  The blue lines vanished amid fearful slaughter.  There was a cessation in the firing.  And behold, through the pall of smoke which enshrouded the field, a Union flag could be seen approaching.

As the smoke was slightly lifted by the gentle May breeze, one lone soldier advanced, bravely bearing the flag towards the breast works.  At least a hundred men took deliberate aim at him, and fired at point-blank range, but he never faltered.  Stumbling over the bodies of his fallen comrades, he continued to advance.  Suddenly, as if with one impulse, every Confederate soldier within sight of the Union color bearer seemed to be seized with the idea that the man ought not to be shot down like a dog.  A hundred men dropped their guns at the same time; each of them seized his nearest neighbor by the arm and yelled to him: 'Don't shoot at that man again.  He is too brave to be killed that way,' when he instantly discovered that his neighbor was yelling the same thing at him.  As soon as they all understood one another, a hundred old hats and caps went up into the air, their wearers yelling at the top of their voices: 'Come on, you brave Yank, come on!'

He did come, and was taken by the hand and pulled over the breast works, and when it was discovered that he was not even scratched, a hundred Texans wrung his hands and congratulated him upon his miraculous escape from death.  That man's name was Thomas J. Higgins,(1) color bearer of the Ninety-ninth Illinois.

Private Higgins was then taken before General Pemberton, the rebel commander, who asked him where General Grant's headquarters were.  "I do not know, as he is moving them every day, but they will be here tomorrow," came the ready response from the quick-witted Irishman.

"How many men has your general got?" the rebel leader inquired.

"Oh, not many, only about seventy-five thousand," Higgins replied.

"How far back do his lines extend?"

"As far as Cairo, Illinois, and they are still being formed in the state of Maine."

"Well," General Pemberton observed sarcastically, "we'll have Grant in here as a prisoner tomorrow."

"I know," was the doughty Yankee soldier's reply, "General Grant will come in here tomorrow to ship you and your command to Altona, Illinois, where he has a big boarding house."

At this, General Pemberton got angry.  "Sergeant," he exclaimed, "take this man away.  He is insulting.  He is impudent.  He is insolent."

Thereupon, Private Higgins was led away, a few days later paroled, exchanged, and subsequently he returned to his regiment, where he remained until the end of the war.(2)

His Medal of Honor was awarded him at the request of the very Confederates who captured him at the assault. Higgins received the Medal of Honor on April 1, 1898. The citation reads: “When his regiment fell back in the assault, repulsed, this soldier continued to advance and planted the flag on the parapet, where he was captured by the enemy.”(3)
  1. Thomas J. Higgins, Private, Company D, Ninety-ninth Illinois Infantry, born in Franklin Co., New York, June 3, 1831.
  2. Deeds of Valor: from records in the archives of the United States government; how American heroes won the Medal of Honor, Vol. 1, Perrien-Keydel Co., 1907, pp. 198-200.
  3. See Medal of Honor Recipients, Civil War at  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Jean Dickie’s Letter to her Daughter Jane

The surviving Gammell/Gemmell family letters are precious and few, and we’re fortunate to have them.  They provide a glimpse into the relationships between family members that we wouldn’t otherwise have.  They enable us to view a small, yet intimate, snapshot in time.  In this letter, we hear the voice of James Gemmell’s mother, Jean Dickie.  Jean bore eight children, five by her husband, James Gemmell, Sr., and three by her second husband, James Henry Wylie, Sr.

Jean Dickie Gemmell Wylie wrote to her daughter Margaret Jane, from Blackinton, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, home of her son Henry and his wife, Catherine.  Blackinton was a textile-manufacturing town located on the Hoosic (or Hoosac) River in the northwest corner of Massachusetts near North Adams and Williamstown, and very near to the border of both New York and Vermont.  Sanford Blackinton's woolen mill was the major employer in the town in the mid-1800's.  Henry Wylie (Margaret Jane’s half-brother) worked eleven hours a day as an operator at the mill, which ran seven sets of machinery and seventy looms, producing nearly fifteen hundred yards of wool a day.

On the 6th day of July 1860, Jean Wylie could never have imagined that one hundred fifty years later, her great, great, grandchildren and her third great grandchildren would read the letter she is writing.

Jean, age sixty-seven, was a widow.  Her second husband, James Henry Wylie Sr., had recently died,(1)  so she had packed up her belongings and moved in with her son Henry.  At this time Jean had some health problems, and seemed to have a premonition of her impending death.  Little did she know that in just fourteen months she would die,(2) not because of illness, but by a bolt of lightning:

My Dear Jane,
You see I date from another place.  But it is the will of providence that I am left thus alone.  May it be for the best.  He has still provided for all my wants hitherto and I feel a humble reliance on all his unmerited mercy that he will still provide for the little while that remains.  I have eagerly yearned to see you all and now there is a way open for me and if I am spared to see you all once more how glad I will be.(3)

Jean Wylie’s youngest child, Mary, had arrived from Houston to visit her mother.  Mary, age twenty-one, was married to fifty-year-old Darius Gregg, a wealthy Texan landowner and slave owner.  Jean reported that “Mary’s here, well and hearty, enjoying herself to her heart's satisfaction.”  Mother and daughter took an overnight excursion on “the cars [railroad] and went to Pontoosuc(4) on the third and returned on the fourth [of July]. We had a good time.”  At Pontoosuc Jean sold some “furniture, carpet and bureau, bedsteads, chairs, crockery, about 8 cords of nonsense.”  (“Mary wrote this.  She's full of mischief but I will pay her back.”) Jean intended to write “8 cords of wood”, but apparently Mary had taken the paper and inserted her own little joke.  Jean had gone to Pontoosuc to sell some of her belongings, now that she was not living on her own.  No doubt she will need the money more than her furniture.

During their trip to the Pittsfield area, Jean bought Mary a new dress, one that her father, James H. Wylie, Sr., had promised her before his death: “Father had promised her a silk dress if she came home…She got a very pretty one.”  Her father most likely knew that he wouldn’t live much longer, and wanted to see his daughter one last time.  Unfortunately he died before Mary arrived.

Jean was exhausted after her trip to Pontoosuc.  She hadn’t had much rest since she arrived at Henry’s home in May.  In June, Henry’s wife, Catherine, gave birth to their third child.  They named their daughter Jane Proudfit Wylie(5) after Catherine’s mother.  Two days after the baby was born, Mary arrived from Houston.  Jean wrote, “It is one continued hurrah.  I kept round doing the work; Kate (Catherine) being laid up, till my weak leg gave out and I had to rest about a week.  But [it] is as well as usual again.”

Kate was soon up and around again after the birth of her baby, but Jean was kept busy caring for the two older children, grandsons Fred and Harry:

The baby is three weeks and three days old.  Little Fred was not walking alone when the baby was born.  He was so fat and heavy and afraid to walk, but is running all over now.  [He is] a little over sixteen months old, a stout healthy boy.  Harry is the most stunning boy I ever saw.  Father [James H. Wylie Sr.] always said he beats Andrew(6) all to pieces when he was little.  He is but little [seldom] in the house when it don't rain.  Henry (Jean’s son, and half-brother of Jane [Margaret Jane]) is well and doing well.  Never was one more steady, much respected by his employers.  [He] Is one of the teachers in the Sunday School, which is quite a large one, kept [held] in the meetinghouse close by.(7)

Jean told her daughter Jane that if all goes well she expects to return to Houston before winter sets in:

If I am well and get through the long journey safe we will have many a long talk.  But I think you will hardly know me.  I have got almost twenty years older looking than when I left Texas.  When once we get past sixty every year counts two in looks, besides I have been so much sick.  But if I have my health in Texas as well as I had before I promise myself great comfort yet with you all and the little girls.(8)

Marion (May) Jenette Andrews
daughter of Margaret Jane Gammell Andrews
(Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo)

Jane’s two little girls are May and Kate Andrews, daughters by her first husband, Captain James B Andrews, who died in 1858.  Jane had recently married James W. Oats, and moved into a new house in the “Oats Settlement”:

Give my best regards to Mr. Oates.  I may accept his offer of that room with many thanks for his kindness.  Oh how I want to see you all once more but cannot say where I shall keep my few things till I see you.  I feel now as if I will be at home with any of you.  But William's always seems like home [after] being there so long.(9)

She asked Jane to share the letter with the other family members then living in Houston.  As for William and his wife, Jane, “how I want to see their garden.  Tell them I will bring lots of flower seeds.”  Mary reported that because of a Texas drought, William’s beautiful garden “has not done as well this year.”  Next, Jean mentioned her son Andrew, “Give my love [to] Andrew’s folks and the children.”  Like most grandmothers, she couldn't forget her grandchildren, “Remember me to May and Kate [Andrews].  I expect to have great times with them yet.”  Then a comment to Jane, “I hear you say…[that I (Jean) am] the biggest child. True, I am foolish as ever about children.”

Jean missed the wedding of her son Fred Wylie, who was married just five days after this letter was written:  “I suppose you have got Fred married,(10) and the wedding over by this time as well.  I hope it is all for the best.  I hope he leaves off running the [Houston and Texas Central Railway] cars and goes to work and I think his wife will agree with me.”  As if Jean had not endured enough pain and sorrow in the last year with the death of her husband, her son Fred, age twenty-five, will die in Texas on September 20, 1860, just two months after this letter was written and two months after his wedding.

Jean reminded her daughter Jane to send just one more letter, “Now I want you to write me a few lines.  I don't want to wait till fall to hear from you.  Tell the rest to not forget one letter more.  I mean Jane [William’s wife] and Het. I am so busy.  Will write again before leaving Mass [Massachusetts].”

Mary then added a few lines of her own:

Dear Sister,
Mother was writing, so I thought I would write a few lines to let you know how I was getting along.  I think this is the most beautiful place I ever was in.  There is so many mountains around and so high, the most beautiful gardens.  I go and see them most every day when it don't rain.  Have you had any there yet?  You wanted rain when I left.  We have had plenty here since I came and looks like we might have more.  Have you seen Mr. Gregg (her husband, Darius Gregg) lately?  Next time you see him, tell him for me that I want him to write me often.  He told me not to write after the fourth because he did not know as he would get it.  How is little May?  Tell her she must learn fast and let me see how much she has learned since I came away.  Give my love to Mr. Oates. No more at present. — Mary (11)

The letter ends with Jean D. Gemmell Wylie’s last written words to her descendants:

"Give my love to all and accept the same for yourself.  May all so live and so act that we may all be admitted into that happy land where there is no more trouble, no more sin nor sorrow, and spend a joyful eternity together is the daily prayer of your ever loving though far distant Mother,"

Jean D. Wylie (12)
  1. Death record for James H. Wylie, Sr., May 4, 1860. (See Massachusetts Deaths and Burials, 1795-1910.)
  2. Jean D. Wylie died September 10, 1861, in Houston.
  3. Jean D. Gemmell Wylie, letter to her daughter Jane, July 6, 1860. (Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo.)
  4. Pontoosuc, a part of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is located twenty miles south of Blackinton. Nearby is Pontoosuc Lake.
  5. See IGI:  Jane Breadfret Wylie, daughter of James H. Wylie and Catherine Spittuel Sinclair, born June 15, 1860, Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts. (See Film #0250293. Breadfret is likely a misreading of Proudfit.)
  6. Andrew F. Gammell, brother of James and Margaret Jane.  He is one of Jean Dickie Gemmell Wylie’s five children by her first husband, James Gemmell.
  7. Jean D. Gemmell Wylie, letter to her daughter Jane, July 6, 1860. (Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo.)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Fred Wylie married Isabella Edwards on July 11, 1860 in Harris County, Texas. They had no children.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Letter to Margaret Jane

It was New Year’s Day 1870.  James sat down with pen and paper to write his annual letter to his sister, Jane.  After an absence of thirteen months working on the railroad, he was ready for a rest, a home-cooked meal, and a peaceful homecoming around the hearth with Maria and the children.  A bottle of Scotch whiskey also added to his reflective, nostalgic mood:

My dear sister Jane,
…know that warm harts and true friends still thinks of you and yours tho o’re the hills and far away…this gold Scotch…brings fresh to my mind the days of old lang-sine and many a pleasant reckolechion which can [never be] realized again for but few of the actors of our old play days remanes yet…I can think back on our Childhood with many a pleasant recklection which often drives the dull care of the present away.

He goes on to tell Jane that he was on the Bear River and far from the settlements when he received her letter informing him of the death of his brother William, who had died unexpectedly in April of pneumonia.  “Jane, it was a hard blow…dear, dear brothers, they are both gone.”  He reminds her that they are the only two left of the siblings that once bore the Gammell/Gemmell name.  William, Robert and Andy have all died, as well as their half brother Fred Wylie.  Henry Wylie is living in Massachusetts, and their half sister Mary is still living in Texas.

James had hoped to visit Jane in Houston before his return to Sheridan, but he had been gone from home long enough.  The last time he had seen her was when they said goodbye on the Houston Bridge as James was leaving Texas in May 1857.  Jane’s first husband, Captain James Andrews, was with them at that last parting, but he died the next year at age fifty.  James had fond memories of “the Captain,” as they called him:

…the Captain, poore fellow, many a plesent reckliction I have of him, one of the most noble of Gods works…Generous to a fault.  Yes Jane as I set and Look at your Pictor with that of your family and thinking of those that gone it makes me feel chills I almost fancey that I can feele the warm kiss and fond imbrace at the Last adieu on the Houston Bridge the holy warm kiss of A sisters love makes A deep impreshion upon the hart that never can be iraddecated the adieus of you all at that parting is the fondest treasure of my bosom and the greatest regreat at the present is that I can’t be one of your family circle on this annual festival of the new yeare and fill the invitation that William gave A year ago  That dear Jane, would be one of the happiest days of my life but we know that today if we can’t mingle in your midst that we are still in your minds and wishes us as we do you A happy New yeare and many of them but as you say it can’t be A verry happy one for it must bring my recklections of the past and the recent [death] of many of our family will be sadly missed but so my dear sister is the destiny of man we must all shortly follow  Let us be prepared for that Grand and certain event that we may meete it as our Brother did when you asked him if he had any thing to say to Jim he looked at you with A smile as much as to say, all is right.(1)

James also expresses his sympathy for William’s widow (also named Jane), for her grief and her loneliness:  “Poore Jane, the loss of a bosom Companion that we have lived so many years with…is like tearing the sole from the body…I do regret that they had no Children to bare with her their burdon of greefe and Cheer her declining years.”

Thinking about his own mortality, James can’t help but feel grateful for the progeny that he will leave behind:  “…with me Jane, it will be different for when this old hulk is layed Away there will be a lot left to laugh or cry as they may feele.”  On this New Year’s day (1870) he can count eight children that are living with him in Sheridan:  Orlin, Jeanette, Josephine, James, Charley, Andrew, Virginia, and Alice.  “They are at present going to [school]…and Jane, I am proud of them.  They are all smart and will pass in a Crowde.”

He doesn’t forget to mention his children who are not living in Sheridan.  “My oldest daughter whose mother died in Salt Lake is married and got one Child.  She has done well…no [polygamy] for her…I made my home at Liby’s [while working on the railroad in northern Utah] and had A great time with my Grand daughter.”  And as for Hannah Jane’s children, “My other children with their mother home I left in Utah are all well.  I have not saw them for seven years but hear oft from them.”

James adds a few concluding remarks.  He states, “Mormonism is About played out… there is many divisions of them here.” (*)   He mentions Eleanor Pratt, who is opening a school in Salt Lake City and doing well.  And finally, he tells his sister Jane that he will shortly write to William’s widow, Jane, to Andrew’s widow, Hetty, and to his half sister, Mary Wylie Gregg.  “Well [Jane] I have given you a long letter.  Try and pay it back with interest.  Give my Love to all.  So says Uncle Jim Gemmell.”

(*) Note – If by “played out” James meant that Mormonism had run its course or reached its peak, and was then [1870] in decline, here are the actual statistics:  Church membership in 1869 was nearly eighty-nine thousand.  Total membership at the end of 2010 was over fourteen million. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is presently the fourth largest Christian denomination in the United States.
  1. Jim Gemmell , letter to his sister, Jane, January 1, 1870.  (Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo.)