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Feature Article on the Swander brothers. Topic: CIVIL WAR & PEOPLE
Written by Jim Sayre in July, 1997

LETTERS HOME FROM FALLEN HEROES

The "Fallen Heroes" marble tablets displayed on the first floor of Sidney’s Monumental Building were rededicated over the Memorial Day weekend. They honor 310 Shelby County soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War more than 130 years ago. Two of those soldiers, Aaron Swander and his younger brother Alfred, served in Company H, 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and are remembered yet today by their family through a special memorial stone in Franklin Township’s Pearl Cemetery and three faded, tattered letters passed down to each Swander generation.

Alfred wrote from a Richmond, Virginia, prisoner of war jail, while Aaron wrote from the 99th OVI camp near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Alfred later died of chronic diarrhea in Danville, Virginia, still a prisoner of war. Aaron was killed in action at Kenesaw Mountain, Georgia, a part of General Sherman’s general advance on Atlanta. Alfred’s body, probably buried in the flood plain of the Dan River, cannot be located. Aaron’s rests in Marietta National Military Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia.

Their cousin, John Swander, whose name is also carved in stone as a "Fallen Hero," died February 3, 1863, in the U.S. General Hospital in Covington, Kentucky, soon after he was wounded at the Battle of Stones River. His body was returned to Pearl Cemetery. The palpable bitterness felt by local citizens over the deaths of John and other local youths in the war is displayed in this Sidney Journal article (Feb. 6, 1862): "We have learned that another victim of this Slaveholder’s war has been brought home. JOHN SWANDER, who was wounded in the battle of Murfreesboro, and was brought thence to Covington, Ky. We have been informed mortification ensued from the wound, and death has been the result. The father of this brave young soldier went down on Monday morning for the purpose of ministering to the wants of his son and if possible bringing him home. Little did he anticipate that he would return with him a corpse. He was the only son, the father’s pride, the cherished object of a mother’s love, but he has offered his young life on the alter of his country’s liberties, peace to his ashes! cherished be his memory! The stricken parents have our most heartfelt sympathy. God help them."

The grievous loss of the Swander family was common throughout the nation and Shelby County. "More than 130 years after it ended, it is difficult for present day Shelby Countians to appreciate the devastating impact the Civil War had on the county in the 1860’s," wrote Shelby County historian Rich Wallace (From a Monumental Past to a Future with Promise, 1995). "Seventeen young men from Shelby County died in the Vietnam Conflict. As terrible as that loss was, had the ratio of fallen soldiers to the population been the same as we experienced in the Civil War, 680 men would have not returned home" from Southeast Asia", according to Wallace. A new plaque dedicated during Memorial Day weekend ceremonies added still another 15 names of Civil War fatalities inadvertently omitted from the original "Fallen Heroes" memorial tablets.

Letters Show Concerns of Common Soldiers
One almost hopes that the letters from Aaron and Alfred, all three addressed to their sister Savilla living on the home farm near Swanders, will speak from another age about the great issues then tearing the nation apart. We look for the emotional impact of the grand events on the common soldier. What were their impressions of the political and military leaders? What about the brave expressions one expects from soldiers facing death for a great cause?

Their words, now barely legible, describe instead the soldier’s daily routine and give voice to very common requests, indeed almost desperate demands, for food and clothing from home. In short, they are letters very much akin to those we might write to family or friends today, disdaining the eloquent for the practical, leaving politics to the politicians, military matters to the colonels and generals.

Indeed, Aaron wrote the very day of the pomp and ceremony of a regimental dress parade honoring a 99th officer. A communiqué from Head Quarters, 99th Reg’t O.V.I., Murrfreesboro, Tenn., dated May 5th, 1863, states: "After dress parade of this Regiment on Friday last, the enlisted men and officers presented to Maj. Ben. LeFever a beautiful sword and belt, as a token of their confidence and esteem" (Sidney Journal, March 15, 1863).

Aaron’s esteem was apparently short-fused since he failed to mention the big event to sister Savilla. "LeFever" was Maj. Benjamin LeFevre, later considered a general in Shelby County, a representative to the Ohio General Assembly, representative of Ohio’s 4th district to the U.S. Congress, and U.S. Consul to Nuremberg, Germany. But, Aaron said... "I have nothing else to do to day so I thought that I would Send you a letter and let you no how we ar geting along." His letter focused on the food, picket duties, silk handkerchiefs, and the regiment’s health.

The one departure from the mundane is Aaron’s poignant closing lines to Savilla. "Dear Sister I would like to see you all and I would like to go home and stay there but why am I speaking so Simple for I know that is impossible at this preasant time but I think that in a few more months we all will be permitted to return to our home and then have our once happy union restored." Aaron could not have been more wrong, for events leading to his death and his brother’s were gaining momentum. The "once happy union" would not be restored "in a few more months," but would stretch on almost another two years after Aaron’s May 1, 1863, letter and about one year after he was mortally wounded on the deadly slopes of Georgia’s Kenesaw Mountain.

The Farm Boys Enlist at Lima
Aaron, born in 1840, and Alfred, born in 1842, grew up in a two-story log cabin on the farm their parents David and Lydia settled in 1833... "When deers and wolves still roved through the forests around their cabin, near what is now known as Swander Crossing" (History of the Swander Family, by Rev. John I. Swander, 1899).

The farm, just to the northeast of the Franklin Township hamlet of Swanders and adjacent to Pearl Cemetery, remains in the family (Russell and Mary Louise [Swander] Sayre).

Their brother, William J., born in 1844, was mustered into service in Mansfield, Ohio, as a private in Co. K of the 20 Regiment, O.V.I., serving at Vicksburg, where he was discharged on July 15, 1863. "I want you to write as soon as this comes to hand and let us now wether you have heard any thing from Brother Wm. J. we haven’t heard from him for some time," Aaron’s letter inquires. The belated answer is: "He returned from the War a moving skeleton, yet with good care he recovered his health in full, went to Illinois...(then) to Kansas, raised a family" (History of Swander Family). William’s luck failed him in 1887 when a "vicious" horse killed him with a kick to the stomach.

Aaron, Alfred, and William had seven siblings: Savilla, Sarah, Edward, James (grandfather of Mary Louise Sayre), Susan, Rebecca, and Frances. Aaron (21), Alfred (19), and cousin John (24) left their homes in early August 1862 to enlist as privates in Company H. 99th O.V.I. Company H was finally "mustered in August 26, 1862, at Camp Lima, O. by C.O. Howard, Captain, 18th Infantry, USA" (Roster of Ohio Troops). The regiment’s battles included Stones River, Tenn. (December 31, 1862 -January 2, 1863), Chickamauga, Ga. (September 19-20, 1863), Lookout Mountain, Tenn. (November 24, 1863), Mission Ridge, Tenn. (November 25, 1863), and Kenesaw Mountain (June 9-30, 1864).

The 99th "left Camp Lima, August 31, with one thousand and twenty-one men, under orders to report at Lexington, Kentucky" (History of Shelby County, Ohio, by Sutton). Its marches, countermarches, steamer trips, and other travels in the next months included defending Louisville against threatened attack by rebel general Braxton Bragg and a chase after and subsequent retreat from the infamous Confederate officer, John Hunt Morgan. "Morgan’s command was first dislodged, but followed the brigade on its retreat and captured about one hundred of the Union forces who were unable to keep up the rapid march... About twenty of these stragglers who were captured belonged to the Ninety-ninth" (Sutton’s History).

After another engagement with Bragg, the 99th took position at Murfreesboro in the spring of 1863. And, here we find Aaron writing his letter to Savilla.

Local Names Appear in Letter
"We Stand guard twice a week with brother Alferd, and Alferd Tolan (Alfred E. Toland) and I N Parke (Isaac N. Parke) are on picked (picket, an advanced line of guard) guard to day," Aaron notes. Later... "Henry Lehman has bin a little un well but he is well now and was on camp guard las night," he wrote. Parke, Toland (a native of Dinsmore Township), and Lehman all survived the war and were discharged in July 1865.

This is the Swander family outside the home near the town of Swanders where Alfred, Aaron
and William were reared. The three brothers died in the Civil War.

swandersfamilyfarm.gif (151852 bytes)

Lehman, becoming Shelby County’s sheriff in 1879, had experienced a rocky start to his military career. He enlisted with the Swander boys at Camp Lima in August of 1862, but was one of 20 stragglers captured by John Hunt Morgan the following November. He was paroled two days later and immediately received home leave. Rejoining the 99th in March 1863 in time to be mentioned in Aaron’s letter, Lehman was later promoted to corporal, farmed for two years after the war, and then engaged in hotel-keeping in Botkins before taking up law enforcement in the county (Sutton’s History). "He was the best Sheriff ever in the county," the January 4, 1984, Shelby County Democrat noted upon his retirement.

Another army buddy was Francis M. Shaffer, not mentioned in Aaron’s letter but probably very much on the mind of its reader, Savilla. Francis joined up with the Swander boys, but was discharged in March 1863 at Nashville, Tenn., on an army surgeon’s certificate of disability (Roster of Ohio Troops). Pastor Samuel Shams later joined Francis and Savilla in marriage, just a few months before he preached a July 17, 1864, memorial service for Aaron in the German Reform Church which stood beside the Swander farm (Marriage Records of Shelby County, Ohio, 1819-1870, by Barbara Adams and Gene Mozley). The Shaffers moved to Macon County, Illinois, and raised six children.

Military life, while not joyous for the Swander boys, was at least relatively comfortable at the time Aaron wrote his May 1863 letter, "we have fine time and plenty to eat. get light bread in Stead of hard tacks (biscuits) and nice poark and ham in Sted of Sowbelly and have fresh beef too dayes out of seven," according to Aaron. But, the storm clouds of a Swander family disaster were building.

Alfred Falls Prisoner at Chickamauga
During the same month that Aaron wrote his letter, Confederate general James "Old Pete" Longstreet was making plans that would lead to brother Alfred’s imprisonment and death. "Old Pete" proposed that units of the Army of Northern Virginia be used to reinforce rebel units in the western war theater to defeat Federal forces in Tennessee.

Longstreet was concerned that "unless something were done to wrest the initiative away from the Federals, the enemy would soon be marching through Georgia" (The Command of General James Longstreet, copyright 1996, Internet website, David M. Smith and The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table). He had accurately anticipated events that would ultimately defeat western theater rebel forces. Heavy fighting erupted on September 19 as the Confederates aided by the Northern Virginia units attempted to fight across Chickamauga Creek to cut the Union army from its base at Chattanooga (Smith). Rebel forces did force the Union forces to reoccupy their Chattanooga trenches. But, on the second day of the battle in which the 99th again met its old nemesis Braxton Bragg, Aaron’s brother Alfred fell prisoner to the rebels.

Alfred was immediately sent to a rebel prison in Richmond, Virginia, a 3-4 day trip of more than 900 miles across 16 separate railroads of varying rail gauges (Smith). His pitiful letter written just a month later testifies to the deprivation he and other prisoners experienced. It was written from Fortress Monroe on a postcard-sized sheet of flimsy paper, addressed on the reverse side to Miss Savilla Swander, Anna, Shelby Co. O with a 3-cent U.S. postage stamp affixed.

alfredswander.gif (86255 bytes)
Alfred Swander

The letter contains fewer than 100 words, themselves eloquent to Alfred’s poverty. Shirt. Socks. Crackers. Cigarette paper. Pork. Butter. Honey. Salt. Soap. Paper. Envelope stamps. "I have nothing" are his plaintive words. He probably never received these items, because his next letter, dated December 13 and also from Richmond, renews his plea. While hard to read, the letter implies that his November letter went unanswered. Butter. Apple butter. Salt. Pepper. Soap. Thread and needles. Good books. Paper and ink. Good balony. Sausage. Good dried beef.

The appearance of this letter, a folded 8" x 10" single sheet of brown wrapping paper, also addressed to Savilla on the reverse side, testifies to Alfred’s growing weakness and despair. Where the writing was carefully aligned and the words carefully constructed in the November letter, just the opposite is true of the December letter, in which scribbling better describes the product.

Even across the great chasm of time, one can sense Savilla’s fearful despair as she imagined the overwhelming odds against these life-saving articles surviving the uncertain mails to reach her brother so far away and at the mercy of indifferent jailers.

These letters written from prison hundreds of miles from his home appear to be all the more desperate for their seeming lack of interest in news from home, friends, and fellow soldiers, especially brother and former campmate Aaron who soon began his own long march to death. The letter’s 100-percent pleading focus on food and personal items contrasts sharply with Aaron’s earlier letter requesting the latest in soldierly fashion: "I want you to get me a Silk hankerchief and hem it and send it to me. git a good one. let it cost what it will....you can put it in the letter envelop and Send it that way. there has lotes of the boyes got them sent that way."

As eastern war theater Union forces converged on Richmond, the seat of the confederate government evacuated to the southwest, taking its prisoners along. Alfred finally succumbed to "Chronic Diarrhea" January 1, 1864, at Danville, Va. (Co. H, 99 Reg’t Ohio Infantry Company Descriptive Book). The army’s final inventory of Alfred’s personal possessions is mostly blank, with these words scripted through the list format: "No effects." He was described as 5 feet 10 inches, light complexion, blue eyes, light hair, and a farmer.

The army took an interesting, and quite bureaucratic, take on Alfred’s death: "...having served HONESTLY and FAITHFULLY with his Company in The Field to the present date, (he) is now entitled to a DISCHARGE by reason of Death caused by cruelties while Prisoner of war..." (Official Discharge papers). It seems the least that could be done under the circumstances.

His buried remains on the Dan River flood plain long ago washed away, leaving only memories of a young man dead too soon. "The little rill, the mighty river Flow mingled with their fame forever" (Byron).

Aaron Meets Death on Kenesaw Mountain
Six months after his brother’s death in southside Virginia, Aaron and what was left of the 99th Ohio advanced with General Sherman on his famous "March to the Sea." But, the march for Alfred was fatally interrupted on the slopes of Kenesaw Mountain to the north of Atlanta.

The strength of the 99th O.V.I. had diminished from over 1,000 men in August 1862 to only 486 present and absent after the battle at Kenesaw Mountain (Sidney Journal, July 8, 1864). Only 200 were present and fit for duty. "28...were lost in the severe conflict at Kenesaw mountain on the 20 of June. In that struggle, it was the brave and stubborn resistance of the 99th which saved the brigade. The regiment under the command of Col. Cummins was well handled, and though the flank was exposed from the retirement of another regiment, yet the 99th maintained its position for two hours against fearful odds" (SJ, July 8, 1864).

The "fearful odds" finally beat Aaron. Among the June 20, 1864, casualties listed in the same news account was "Aaron Swander, Co. H" (SJ, July 8, 1864). "Killed on Skirmish line by rebel Sharp Shooter," reports the Co. H Descriptive Book, which identified him as 5 feet 10 inches, dark complexion, hazel eyes, black hair, farmer.

His body did not return to Shelby County; rather, he lies with more than 10,000 of his Union comrades from 23 states in Georgia’s Marietta National Cemetery not far from where he met his death. A simple, white stone, much like you see in Arlington National Cemetery, says "Aaron Swander Ohio."

aaronswander.gif (85452 bytes)
Aaron Swander

Pastor Samuel Shams of the Swanders German Reform church preached a memorial sermon on July 17 honoring Aaron (undated clipping from a Sidney newspaper). "In all of his doings, he was moved by a sense of duty," Shams said. Aaron’s thoughts as he lay dying on the red soil of distant northern Georgia must have been filled with home. Shams reported that Aaron had written his sister, probably Savilla, that "If I fall, it is near home."

Brothers Reunited in Memory
The Swander family later erected an "Aaron and Alfred" memorial stone in Pearl Cemetery near their home, the facts of Aaron’s death on one side, Alfred’s on the other. Like the "Fallen Heroes" tablets in Sidney’s Monumental Building which also list their names, the Pearl Cemetery stone, placed beside the graves of their parents David and Lydia, pays silent tribute to the two brothers lost to a great cause in which they heartily believed, but was eclipsed in their letters home by the concerns of getting through the day.

Condition of the Letters
Aaron and Alfred Swander’s letters were passed down through four generations of the Swander family inserted between the pages of a large family Bible. Paper acids and periodic handling and folding exacted a fearful toll on the letters, all three of which were written in pencil. Alfred’s letters were written on poor quality paper, really just scraps found in the prison. Extremely fragile and faded into almost illegibility, the letters, now unfolded and lying flat, have been sealed in archival-quality polypropylene sleeves and are now stored in a bank vault where temperature and humidity are controlled. The letters have also been scanned into computer "bmp" files and their images preserved on 3-1/2 inch floppy disks.

Letter from Aaron

Murfreesboro Tennessee May the 1st/63
Dear Sister.
This pleasant morning finds me Seated in order to drop you a few lines to let you no that we are all well as preasant and hope that thease few lines may find you all enjoying the same State of health. I have not had any answer for the las letter that I Sent you but I have nothing else to do to day so I thought that I would Send you a letter and let you no how we ar geting along. we have fine time and plenty to eat. get light bread in Stead of hard tacks and nice poark and ham in Sted of Sowbelly and have fresh beef too dayes out of seven.

We Stand guard twice a week with brother Alferd and Alferd Tolan [Alfred E. Toland] and I N Parke [Isaac N. Parke] are on picked (picket) guard to day. we are on Station Third and out past No. 1. I would just as Soon Stand picked guard as to be in camp all the time for we only have 4 hours to Stand out of 24.

I want you to get me a Silk hankerchief and hem it and send it to me. git a good one. let it cost what it will. you can take some of that money that we sent home and if that is not there get it any how and when we draw money again I will Send it to you. you can put it in the letter envelop and Send it that way. there has lotes of the boyes got them sent that way. the health of the regiment is very good. There are but few sick reports. Henry Lehman has bin a little un well but he is well now and was on camp guard las night. It is now 2 oclock and I have got too houers of picket guard and have too houers more to Stand and that comes 12 till 2 oclock to Knight and then I have all day tomorro to rest and the next day I must drill 3 hours.

Dear sister.
I would like to see you all and I would like to go home and stay there but why am I speaking so Simple for I know that is impossible at this preasant time but I think that in a few more months we all will be permitted to return to our home and then have our once happy union restored. I want you to write as soon as this comes to hand and let us now wether you have heard any thing from brother Wm. J. we haven’t heard from him for some time. I must clos for the preasant. no more at preasant. But remain your ever affectionate brother dear sister. Aaron Swander. Please write Soon. don’t forget Savilla Swander. My best wishes to all. We got the paper that you Sent us.

Letters from Alfred

Ritchmond Va November 20
Dear sister.
I want you to send me a shirt & pare of socks...no.11 shoes. 20 lbs of crackers, 20 lbs of pork, 6 lbs butter and honey, 12 lbs salt, cigs paper. soap, paper and envelop stamps, some other trinkets. I have nothing. .....Direct to Ritchmond VA Smiths bilding, G. floor ...fortress Monroe...Co. H 99 rg. .....Alfred swander prisner of war co. H 99 reg Ritchmond Smiths Bilding on G floor ....fortress monroe.

Ritchmond VA Dec. the 3
Dear sister.
It is with pleasure that I take my pencil in hand to let you know that I am yet alive and well. I sent you one letter in which I wanted you to send me a box with some things if you get them and sent it. then (these) right and if not I want you to send one first mail butter and honey apple butter and plenty of salt and pepper and soap and thread and needles and some good books, paper and ink. Send direct by mail. You can think of other things. put in some good balony, sausage and good dried Beef. _____ don’t send ______ for _______ _________ _______ ________ _________ Direct to Ritchmond VA Ft (Mon)roe, Alfred Swander Express the box.Pvt. Alferd Swander, ritchmond Va Smiths bilding, third floor.

 

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