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Ohio Native Gives Life To Civil War Memories

January 8, 2012
By LINDA COMINS , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

A serendipitous discovery of a cache of old letters, a diary and memoirs resulted in the development of a large book that offers a fascinating eyewitness view of the Civil War from the perspective of an Ohio County soldier.

Ohio County native Mark Edwin Paul has transcribed, copied and organized the writings of his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Orr. Paul added photographs, maps and illustrations, along with explanatory material, for the book titled "A Company of Boys in Blue - The Civil War Through the Eyes of a Soldier."

The book, published in partnership with Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., offers "a unique look at a local man's experiences in the greatest conflict of our country," said Bekah Karelis, WNHAC historian, who assisted with the project. Paul said the combination of documents provides "a rare perspective into the life of an ordinary Civil War soldier."

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Through his letters and diary, Orr documented the day-to-day life of a Union soldier. Many years later, he wrote a memoir of his experiences.

Orr served in the Union Army as a private in Company D of the 12th Virginia (later known as the 12th West Virginia) Infantry. In his writings, he recounted being present at Appomattox Court House when they learned that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered.

Paul, who now lives in Williamsburg, Va., presented a copy of "A Company of Boys in Blue" to the Ohio County Public Library. The volume is now part of the special collections in the library's Wheeling Room.

The book is available for purchase at the Wheeling Artisan Center and Words and Music bookshop at Stratford Springs.

Orr grew up near Dallas Pike on land that his grandfather had settled in 1774, Paul said. Their descendants have continued to live on the property.

"I'm in the seventh generation to live on that property," Paul said, adding, "My cousin and his kids - the eighth generation - still live there."

Explaining the genesis of the book project, Paul said that on Thanksgiving in 2008, he learned that a cousin of his mother, Audra Jean Orr Paul, had dropped off an old suitcase containing about 100 of Orr's Civil War letters (penned between 1862 and 1865) and his 1863 diary.

Paul took the letters home and began transcribing and typing the letters and arranging them in chronological order. His intention was "to share all this stuff with the extended family." Because of the fragile condition of the old letters, "I couldn't let the letters be passed around," he explained.

While Paul continued to work on the project "just for my family," a cousin presented him with 79 pages that Orr had written in 1894, chronicling his wartime memories. Paul learned that Orr had shared those stories at annual reunions of Company D. At that point, Paul decided to incorporate the memoirs into the work and expand the scope of the project.

"Bekah (Karelis) worked on it quite a bit," he said. "It started as a family project and it grew a bit."

Paul said he added footnotes and clarifying statements to improve the flow of the work, but 90 percent of the book is Orr's writing. Karelis said, "Mark Paul combined these writings of his great-great grandfather and created an intimate picture of his life during that tumultuous time."

The cover of the book features an old metal photograph of Orr that Paul acquired from his grandmother in 1968. The undated photo, that Orr apparently had given to his parents, was inscribed "Your affectionate son,Thomas J. Orr."

Most of the letters were written to Orr's parents, to his sister, Ruth, and to a friend, Sarah J. "Sallie" Oldham, who became his wife on March 26, 1867. The couple built a big farmhouse on the family property. Their first surviving child, Frank, was Paul's great-grandfather.

Orr was born in Ohio County on Dec. 17, 1839. He had an older sister, Margaret; a younger sister, Ruth, and a younger brother, Bill.

Orr died on April 3, 1911 and was buried in West Alexander, Pa. His wife died in 1919 and was buried next to him. Paul and other family members and friends gathered at the cemetery last April 3 for a memorial service commemorating the 100th anniversary of Orr's death.

Reflecting on Orr's writings, Paul stated, "In reading his letters I was immediately impressed that a person of his age and limited education had such a grasp on the historical and political significance of what was going on around him. I was impressed as well with his strong sense of family, and I liked his sense of humor."

Orr was part of a company of nearly 100 young men led by Capt. W.B. Curtis of Ohio County. Orr said the men of Company D enlisted on Aug. 14, 1862 and were mustered into service 11 days later. "This company was composed of students, teachers, young men preparing for the ministry, farmers and mechanics," he recalled.

The soldiers assembled on Aug. 18, 1862 in West Liberty, where friends and neighbors gathered to see them off to war. Orr wrote, "None of us can forget that sultry August afternoon when we were drawn up in line to bid farewell, perhaps for the last time, to those most dear to us. None can ever forget that great lump that swelled up in our throat, or that manly tear that had risen unbidden to our eyes as we clasped hands with father and mother, sister or brother, or that other one, nearer and dearer than all else besides. Such scenes were enacted all over our fair land, and why should we be exempt?" he asked rhetorically.

The troops left West Liberty, "amid cheers and tears," and headed to Camp Carlisle on Wheeling Island. "In camp, all was flurry and excitement," he recalled. The troops received their marching orders Aug. 30; "soon all was excitement and confusion," he related. The soldiers marched to the B&O depot Aug. 31; they boarded boxcars and were supplied with Belgian muskets (of dubious quality) and 40 rounds of ammunition.

They traveled by train to Clarksburg, then received marching orders to Buckhannon Sept. 5 and to Beverly Oct. 18. Orr wrote, "We left the next day, passing over Rich Mountains battleground, our first view of the sad havoc of war. Quite a number of Union and Rebel dead were buried here, near the roadsides and surrounding trees gave evidence of the fierceness of the conflict ..."

The soldiers, who dubbed Camp Beverly "Camp Misery," marched to Huttonsville Nov. 5. Orr said they came upon a wedding feast and took the groom, a Confederate soldier, as prisoner. "A short distance above Huttonsville, we met a wagon loaded with butter on its way to Staunton. We took the man, horses, wagon and butter along with us. We ate the butter, sent the man to Camp Chase and turned the horses and wagon over to Uncle Sam," he wrote.

After going to Petersburg, Cumberland, Md, and Moorefield, they were ordered to Winchester, arriving on New Year's Day 1863. Orr said they had a grand parade "of the Virginia troops in honor of the new state" on Jan. 10, 1863.

Issues of statehood were on Orr's mind when he wrote to his father from Winchester on Feb. 5, 1863. "Today representatives are to be elected to the new state convention and I tremble for the result. If we lose the new state I fear all is lost or all that will be worth fighting for in western Virginia. Butternutism seems to be on the increase in Ohio County; if they succeed in defeating the new state there is no telling what the result will be," Orr wrote.

Paul explained that Confederate soldiers and Southern sympathizers were called "Butternuts" because of the color of Rebel uniforms that were dyed with walnut hulls.

Many of Orr's letters home were filled with inquiries about life on the farm, questions about family and friends and news of neighbors that he encountered in the war zones. Frequently, his diary entries stated, "Not anything of importance occurred today."

During early 1863, the company was stationed at Berryville, Harpers Ferry, Clarksburg, Winchester and Martinsburg. In June 1863, the regiment went to Bedford County, Pa., and Orr and two childhood friends walked home for a short visit. Paul said that over a nine-day period, these men walked 265 miles, averaging 29 miles a day.

They rejoined the regiment in Harrisburg, Pa., then went to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Sandy Hook, Va., and Sharpsburg, Md.

In late July, Orr wrote to his sister, offering this chilling account: "We are encamped on the old battlefield of Antietam. The country for two or three miles around here is one vast burying ground. A great many of the dead that were buried here have been rooted up by the hogs. I seen one place the other day where 15 or 20 of a New Jersey regiment had been buried and more than half of them had been rooted up. Their bones were lying scattered over the ground. Nearly all the crops through this part of the country have been destroyed by the two armies passing through ..."

After being stationed in Martinsburg and Maryland Heights, Md., Orr was detached from his regiment as a clerk for a general. In this capacity, he traveled to Wheeling to take prisoners.

Away from the battlefields, Orr had occasion to spend some time in Washington City, D.C., in January 1864. He wrote to his sister and described the Capitol and its statues and paintings.

Orr also offered a jaded view of the difference between those in power and ordinary citizens. He told his sister: "I had a stroll through a portion of the President's Mansion the other day. Father Abraham certainly lives in fine style. I could not help but contrast his way of living with ours. I do not think that this world is very equally divided, while Unce Abe is rioting in all the luxuries that money can procure there are hundreds of people living almost under the shadow of his mansion who do not have the necessities of life ..."

In another letter, Orr related that he was present in the House of Representatives as they debated the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.

Orr's service also took him to Jamestown, Harpers Ferry, Beverly, Webster and Grafton. From that location, he wrote to Oldham on April 24, 1864, describing a lifestyle that must have been the envy of his fellow soldiers. He related: "I am still with Gen. Sullivan. I have a good time considering that I am in the Army. I get to go where I please and almost when I please, board at a hotel without costing me anything - that you know is much better than being with the regiment and then I don't run the risk of being shot at. If there is anything that I hate the sound of it is the whistling of a Minnie ball and the screaming of shells. I have heard quite enough to satisfy any curiosity that I ever had on that subject."

However, Orr was present for a skirmish near Mount Jackson on May 14, 1864. In a letter, he gave a vivid account: "The artillery fire soon increased to a roar, and soon the big rolls of infantry firing was heard all along our line. At this time, a furious thunderstorm burst upon the scene of blood and carnage. At times the roaring of our guns outrivaled that of Heaven's artillery. It seem as if Heaven, angry at the combatants below, had burst with wrath and was hurling her fierce thunderbolts down on their devoted heads."

He wrote to his father that the battle had been "a severe fight" and "our loss is severe." Orr later wrote to his sister, saying, "By the way I never told you much about our fight. The reason why was we got thrashed like thunder and it made me mad. Our loss in all was about 650 men killed, wounded and missing. We were greatly overpowered ..."

In a Sept. 15, 1864 letter to Oldham, Orr noted that he had been in the Army for over two years. "For the first 15 months I endured hardships such as I do not kare (sic) to endure again if it can be helped," he remarked, adding later, "I wish this sceane (sic) of blood and carnage was over. I am tired of seeing so many choice young men ruined forever ..."

In January 1865, the unit was designated as the 1st Independent Division, 24th Army Corps, of the Army of the Potomac.

In a Feb. 17, 1865 letter to his father, Orr rejoiced over the abolition of slavery, calling it the "greatest" victory. He observed that "there are hundreds of thousands of men in our Army that never would have enlisted had it not been for the hope of destroying slavery. Their hopes have been fully realized ..."

Later, Orr described the war's final moments at Appomattox Court House: "About ten o'clock, a white flag was seen to our left and front, slowly approaching. A white flag! 'Lee has surrendered' was the word that passed along the line. Did you ask if we cheered? No, we just opened our mouths and hollered. It was a spontaneous outburst of the pent-up feelings from years of bloody strife and suffering finding vent.

"Old ragged hats went up in clouds; men wept, and sang, and swore, and hugged each other in a perfect frenzy of joy. Official rank and everything else was forgotten in the general rejoicing and why not? ... It is vain to attempt to describe our feelings. Our boys and the Johnnies were soon mingling together," he continued.

"The Johnnies were almost famished, and the last crumb of hard-tack was cheerfully divided with them by our men and the most cordial relations were soon established between former enemies. The history of the world will scarcely furnish a parallel to the scene enacted at Appomattox on April 9, 1865," Orr wrote.

The troops marched to Lynchburg, where they learned of Lincoln's assassination. "At first we thought it was a hoax, but were soon forced to accept its truth," Orr said. Upon entering Richmond on April 24, 1865, Orr wrote, "Richmond was ours at last, an empty prize."

The last of Orr's Army letters was written to his parents from Richmond on May 13, 1865. In it, he had harsh words for the first governor of West Virginia. He charged, "It is a notorious fact that Gov. A.I. Boreman never has done anything for the troops in the field. Other governors would come out and see their boys and see how they were getting along and try to remedy any evils that might exist. But old Boreman would sit on his ass at Wheeling and offer big bounties for volunteers to keep some of his bumming friends out of the Army, or issue proclamations for Thanksgiving days and stuff his old guts with turkeys on such occasions while his boys in the Army were protecting him and feasting on hard-tack and salt-horse."

Orr was mustered out of the Army on June 15, 1865 and received orders to embark to Wheeling, where he arrived on June 20. He was finally discharged on June 26.

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