War letters share stories, sacrifices

My great-grandfather Marquis Holcomb was a wagon maker back in the 1860s during the Civil War. He lived in Shalersville, Portage County, with his family.

As was true in most of Ohio and across the country, agriculture was the predominant occupation. So being a wagon maker was an important industry. With horses the main source of power and transportation, wagons were important vehicles on most farms.

Family history tells us my great-grandfather had a good business.

As the Civil War dragged on, he made the difficult decision to leave his family and enlist in the Army in 1864. Why he made that decision, we are not sure.

While in the Army, he wrote a series of letters back home to his wife, Ursula. She kept them and they have been passed down in the family and I now have them. There are 19 of them and we have found them interesting, sad and valuable to us.

Recently, the Ashtabula Arts Center in Ashtabula had a display of war letters that features correspondence from those in the military and those at home. They include letters going back to the Revolutionary War and up to the more recent Iraq War.

Copies were made of the original letters so they could be returned to the families. I took the letters from Marquis — or Mark, as he was known — to them so they could make copies.

His letters, along with many others, were on display during September and October in the gallery of the Ashtabula Arts Center for public viewing.

They were an interesting display and worth the time it took to study them and get a picture of what those in the military and those back home were experiencing.

In his first letter back home, Mark tries to justify his decision to enlist. He had left his wife and two children. Also, they had lost four children earlier at very young ages. So he left a lot of responsibility as well as sadness at home.

The Civil War had dragged on for a long time. His letters suggest he believed he had some responsibility to do what he could to help his country.

His letters tell about his early training at Camp Cleveland and train ride south into Tennessee. Then they marched considerable distances to near the front where battles were being fought. From his writing, it was clear he enjoyed seeing the countryside in the South as he went through the area.

Mark didn’t say too much about the danger that he was in. Rather, he talked about the good food they had and the friends he had made. He did mention one experience where a bullet had hit his belt buckle and dented it, saving his life.

After about four months in the Army, he was wounded in a battle near Dalton, Ga., and died nine days later. This no doubt was a time of extreme sadness for Ursula and the family back in Shalersville. After losing four young children, and now her husband, it had to be a most difficult time. Many families during wars have gone through very similar sad times.

Ursula only lived for three years after Mark died, leaving two children to be raised by grandparents. One of them was my grandmother Inez, who later married Elmore Parker, my grandfather. They lived in Freedom in Portage County and had two children, my father, John, and his sister, Lucy

All wars leave much sadness and heart ache back home. The letters on display at the Ashtabula Art Center helped tell that story.

John Parker is retired from The Ohio State University and is an independent writer for the Tribune Chronicle.