In the winter of 1863, my great, great, great, great grandfather, David Mathews, left home to serve in the Civil War. He was 36 years old, not a wealthy man, and regretted having to leave his wife, children, and extended family as he felt his greatest responsibility was providing for them in the lean times the war had brought.
Extremely nearsighted, he requested an examination when he reported for duty to see if he might be dismissed from service on the basis that he couldn’t possibly be of much use as a soldier given his poor eyesight. His request was denied, though he did manage to get himself excused from shifts as watchguard.
While away, David wrote regular letters home to his wife Rebecca, a fact that is known only because Rebecca saved these letters, carefully tying them in a bundle at some point and tucking them away. Her own letters of reply no longer exist so we can only gather insight into the relationship from David’s words, but her act of saving the letters strikes me as a tender gesture of how much she cared for him.
Though David survived the war, he died in 1867, only two years after its conclusion. Family lore says that the time he spent in the Rock Island prisoner of war camp weakened him physically to the point that he never fully recovered. Rebecca lived until 1901, and stayed in the family home for all those years.
By 2006, the Mathews house was no longer inhabited and was being overtaken by the vegetation surrounding it. In fact, the vines that had woven themselves through the structure might have been the only thing keeping it from collapse.
Our family collaborated with the local historical society to save the building and restore it because it was believed to be the oldest existing pioneer cabin in the county. The day before the building was to be moved, my father’s cousin went to inspect the house and happened to see something peeking from the rubble that caught his eye. Rebecca’s keepsake letters had been found.
Reading the letters, I was surprised to find that many of David’s words felt to me that they could have been written by a present-day soldier as much as by one from the Civil War era. As I read, I started jotting down the lines that felt like timeless sentiments. David’s longing for home, his deep concern for his family’s welfare, and the way he often closed his letters with “your affectionate husband” touched me, but what moved me most was his hope for peace.
In what I think was his most eloquent letter, he asked his family to “pray that peace and love may abound for our nations” and expressed his wish for a world with “no wars, nor grief, nor trouble but joy unspeakable forever and ever.”
David was not an extraordinary or notable person of his day. He wasn’t drafting a political speech to make a public declaration or impress an audience. He was expressing himself in the very private context of a letter home. And it is precisely because he was an ordinary fellow, as flawed and self-interested as we all can be at times, that I found his hopes for peace so meaningful.
To bring David’s words forward into the present day, I asked a local indie folk band, Before Home, to come up with their own interpretation of the song I wrote using lines from David’s letters. In their arrangement, this trio of 19-year-olds gives voice to David’s mostly deeply felt hope that also happens to be mine: a world where peace and love abound.
To learn more about Before Home and its members Reed Fischer, Sid Gopinath and Aaron White, visit their blog site “March My Darlings,” which details a documentary film project on local music that they are currently producing. You can hear more of their music at their Youtube site.
The Mathews cabin is located in Clarke County, Alabama, having been preserved by the Clarke County Historical Society.