John Summerfield Staples: In the Shadow of History | Retreat to Stroudsburg
He sought neither fame nor fortune for his unique experience and none has been afforded him.
This series endeavors to recognize him, his legacy, and the unusual military position he occupied as the “Representative Recruit” of President Abraham Lincoln. Installments of this series appeared in each edition of The Fanlight through Spring 2015 and the anniversary of the ending of the Civil War.
PART TWO of FIVE
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New Bern, N.C., May 1863 — Home and family seemed a distant memory. In the delirium of fever, brought on by typhoid, John Summerfield Staples struggled to recall the events of the past seven months. He concentrated on separating reality from dreams. There was no doubt about the reality of death. They had buried three men, boys really, along the route of march, all lost to the same disease he now lay stricken with.
The fever waxed and waned and carried his mind through alternating levels of consciousness. He thought he was in a tent but couldn’t be sure. He had no idea what day of the week it was. As for the month, he thought it was May, but the trees and the temperatures, so unlike home, only added to his confusion. He was certain they had reached North Carolina but couldn’t recall if they had entered the town of New Bern, which was their objective. He thought he had been wounded, but couldn’t recall a battle. Perhaps a sniper’s ball had found its mark?
He was sure Rachael had come to see him off and had touched his hand affectionately. He recalled days of endless marching, setting up camp, and gathering firewood. With blurred recollection he thought of evenings spent around campfires listening to stories that couldn’t possibly be true and eating monotonous food that had no flavor. He declined participation in the popular games of cards and dice and yet, somewhere in the recess of memory, he felt a connection to this peculiar Army life and those with whom he shared it.
From somewhere nearby he heard a brusque, masculine voice declare him unfit for combat or any further service. He vaguely heard the words “discharge him with a Surgeons Certificate and send him home.” Lucidity surrendered to fever and his mind and body retreated to the world of the deathly ill.
For three days and nights he lay motionless on a makeshift bunk in a train that once carried men to the battlefield. He was aware only of an intense pain in his gut and a relentless thirst. e had no concept of time or place. He was surrounded by others who were just as sick. At times he was vaguely cognizant of images of men without arms, without legs, with horrible, gaping wounds in their necks and faces. They floated in and out of his fever-impaired vision like ghosts in some macabre nightmare. He was sure some of his traveling companions were already dead. His mother’s face hovered just above him. As he made an effort to raise his arm, the image melted away.
The screeching sound of metal on metal and hissing steam stopped the train and brought him back from a dreamless sleep. He heard the shuffle of heavy boots and the murmur of tired voices. He was flat on his back but he was moving, carried along by some unseen and unexplained force. Working in practiced unison, four orderlies placed his stretcher on the platform of the Dansbury train station, in line with five others. Two were completely shrouded. Sunlight washed across his face for the first time in more than a week. He inhaled deeply and became aware of air that carried a fragrance instead of an odor.
Through squinting eyes he saw his mother’s face. He raised his hand and touched it, puzzled that the image didn’t disappear. He heard her voice and felt her hands caress his face. Tears of joy ran down her cheeks and on to his. He tried to speak, no words would come.
John Summerfield was home.
He passed the month of June quietly, resolved to regain the health of adolescence. Between the wrens and the roosters there was no late sleeping but staying in bed past sunrise had never been his habit. His father built a large, sturdy rocker and placed it on the porch. From mid-morning until late afternoon he occupied the comfortable chair. His mother constantly adjusted the pillow and quilt that never seemed to be where she wanted them.
He had always been a reader. The family Bible became a constant companion. Neighbors lent books. He read the town dailies with keen interest, keeping up on the war news, experiencing dismay at the mounting death toll and deep sadness when he recognized a name on the “Killed in Action” list.
He slept, he dreamt, he thought of those who would not return, and those who had suffered crippling wounds. He fought battles of shame and guilt, but knew this disease was neither his fault nor something he had used to escape the horrors of the battlefield.
Rachael visited regularly and read to him, shared tidbits of borough gossip and kept his spirits up by planning a walk around town on the 4th of July. The doctor and the druggist arrived weekly to check his progress and many local folks stopped by to wish him well. His mother guarded him like a sentry, instinctively knowing when well-wishers had stayed too long, always managing to send them on their way without giving offense.
The telegraph clicked to life and Robert Jonas pulled his chair in close to the cluttered desk. Pencil in hand ,he would write in the abbreviated style of a professional newsman. He had been in this office since it opened in 1855, he knew his job and, more importantly, he understood it. He could separate the important from the mundane, and he knew how and when to be discreet.
Earlier he had dated his pad: 02 July 1863. He sat, motionless; the message came rapidly, the format concise.
He knew the casualty report would come last.
Damn, he knew the parents of each one. The key sprang back to life.
The key fell silent. He stared at the pad in disbelief. Even war has rules. You don’t kill ministers.
He folded his note and tucked it in his vest. He flipped the door sign to “closed” and exited the tiny, paper-strewn room. He walked past the grocer and the office of the Monroe Democrat and felt the rhythm of the pounding printing presses in the sidewalk. He continued west on Main. John Staples would learn of the death of his friend from him, not the evening paper.
Standing at the pulpit of Rev. Howell’s church, John Staples concluded the eulogy of his friend and as the congregation began a hymn, he determined to do something to honor the memory of his fallen companion. He would pray on this, knowing God would direct him.
Direction came in early September 1863, in the form of a broadside, prominently displayed, at the Stroudsburg post office. The War Department had an urgent need for skilled carpenters to work in the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. There was more information but he didn’t take time to read it. He had to get home and pack for his trip to D.C.