Thursday, March 7, 2013
I recently took a trip back in time.
It was as much fun as it sounds. I met a lot of interesting folks along the way, both in the here and now and in the way back when.
I can't begin to thank the people involved in this trip: Jordan M Simmons III, Chuck Cox, Heyward Hutson, Mary Miles at St. John's the Beloved Catholic Church, Chris Ohm, and George Seago, to name but a few.
I'm not sure I'm back yet. Only the day before yesterday, I found myself standing where a young soldier sat reading a letter 114 years ago. There's something more than a little surreal in a moment like that. Your arm hair stands on end; you shiver deliciously. Surely Howard Carter must have felt like this at the doorway to Pharaoh's tomb.
Hopefully, Pharaoh, or in this case, the soldier, won't curse me. I rather doubt it – he apparently liked to share his experiences.
By now people have probably read my stories on Camp Marion, the U.S. Army training camp for soldiers who volunteered for the Spanish American War. Like the war itself, the camp didn't last too long – about four months – but it left a mark on Summerville in ways we may not realize.
For instance, it was known that Spanish American War soldiers helped build the first sanctuary for St. John's the Beloved Catholic Church – there is even an old stained glass window from that building currently in the Dorchester County Museum that bears an inscription dedicated to the memory of the 14th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1898.
But it is only within the past week or so that we have learned the names of two soldiers who helped build the church and three soldiers stationed at the camp – all of who went on to significant accomplishments.
Like all good stories, this one started in the middle on the way to a different destination. We received a telephone call from a man named Jordan M. Simmons III, who grew up in Summerville. A retired U.S. Army officer, Simmons had been researching the military service of his great-great grandfather, Private Jordan Swindel, who served with the Union's 35th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, an all African American unit of former slaves and freed men enlisted in North Carolina. The unit was sent to Summerville prior to the end of the Civil War and like many from that unit Swindel would settle in Summerville in the area now known as Brownsville.
At some point, Simmons found a reference to Camp Marion and an African American unit commanded by a man named Charles Young. Before I knew it, I was on my way to 1898 Summerville and beyond.
I learned quite a bit. I learned of a man of incredible character, intellect, and courage who excelled and achieved great things in spite of the times in which he lived. I was honored to bring Col. Young's story – as best I could – to our readers. He is a man every person in this country should know and honor; that his memory has fallen into relative obscurity borders on the criminally negligent, in my book.
But as they say, “Wait; there's more.”
As it turns out, I met two more interesting, accomplished individuals worthy of our honor and admiration.
At first I didn't have much information; no one seemed to know much about Camp Marion, even less about its soldiers. Aside from my research on Col. Young and a reference to St. John the Beloved, I had very little to work with, so I started making calls. Heyward Hutson, president of the Summerville Preservation Society, suggested I contact the church.
Enter Private Herbert Oscar Kelley, or rather, his great grandson, Chuck Cox of Altoona, Pa.
Cox recently contacted the church with information that his great grandfather was one of the soldiers who helped build the church. He even had pictures. Intrigued, I contacted him.
Here came the first Howard Carter moment.
Cox's great grandfather, among other things, was an avid photographer – quite a good one, as it turned out -- and had taken many pictures during the four months he was in Summerville. Cox, who a couple of years ago discovered all these old dry glass plate negatives in a trunk in his grandparent's house, has reproduced and saved the images and the result is nothing short of spectacular. What ran in the Journal Scene this week are snapshots of Summerville between Nov. 1898 and Feb. 1899, through the eyes of a young man with what back then would have been a fairly newfangled hobby. Photos no one to our knowledge has ever seen before.
Cox also had his great-grandfather's Bible, in which the young soldier recorded his duty stations, including his time in Summerville and his unit, company K of the 14th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Private Kelley's younger brother, George, was also here in the same unit; this is corroborated by an application for veteran's compensation George filed in 1934.
Herbert Kelley became a professional printer, labor union organizer, and veterans' affairs advocate; in fact he was the first National Commander of the American Foreign Service Veterans, now known as the VFW. George Blackburn Kelley would form a successful amateur baseball league.
That leads to one more quick aside: Camp Marion was located on property along what is now Marion Avenue, most likely behind the Halcyon Inn, which means that George the baseball player/fan/commissioner once lived, worked, and slept on property now owned by a major league baseball player.
How's that for a final nod to the gods of irony?
What an amazing journey, indeed – and my guess is that happily, it's far from over.