Letters tell about life, death

By Regina Villers. Originally published April 11, 2001 in The Suburban Life, added April 16, 2020.

     I have a friend who has long preached and lectured to me about the value of old letters and correspondence.  She has a heavy interest in history and has told me over and over again.  “Save letters.  They will be an important account of history in years to come.”  

     About a year ago, I was reminded of her advice when Russell DeMar of Madeira received a letter from a relative, Marian DeMar Wearly, who was selling her house in Columbus and moving to Arizona.  In an antique chest that had belonged to her father, Clason DeMar, she found two letters from the Civil War era that had been tucked away for years.  She sent them to Russell, who has done extensive research in the DeMar family history.

     The DeMar family has been an important part of Madeira’s history, going back to pioneer settlers James and Jane DeMar, who built and lived in a log cabin on Miami Road.  From them, a long line of DeMars followed down through Madeira’s history, providing us with many colorful stories.  Russell is the only DeMar still living in Madeira, along with his wife, Mary Lou.

     The original DeMar couple, James and Jane, had 10 children.  Three of their sons enlisted in the Civil War.  The three brothers, Jim, Ike, and John, walked from their Miami Road home to Camp Dennison, where they volunteered for the 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

     The letters Russell received a year ago were written by Jim during their service in the Civil War.  After the DeMar brothers enlisted at Camp Dennison, they trained there, learning drills and formations.  A letter described their life there as a picnic compared to later war experiences.

     The regiment, armed with Belgian rifles and marching orders, was sent first to Covington Sept. 3, 1862, to take part in the defense of Cincinnati.  The brothers then campaigned through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.

     During the 1863 siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi, the youngest brother, John, was wounded.  He was returned home to die.  He’s buried behind Armstrong Chapel in Indian Hill.

     Jim and Ike DeMar continued in the long and bitter war to the very end.  Mobile, Ala., was said to be the most heavily fortified city in the Confederacy.  Attempts to take it had started in late March 1865, and the DeMar brothers’ regiment was ordered to attack Fort Blakely.

     One of the recently discovered letters was written by Jim DeMar to his parents and vividly describes that battle April 9, 185.  The letter was dated April 11, 1865, and is in excellent condition with excellent, easy-to-read handwriting.

     He described the charge of their regiment and proudly told about the victory.  “In thirty (sic) minutes after the order forward was given, our colors were waving over the enemies’ works.” He told how the regiment had captured “near a thousand prisoners, five pieces of artillery and a good many stand of small arms.”

     Then he almost casually went into a poignant part of his letter, “While I rejoice over the victory,” he wrote, “it is my very painful duty to inform you that Ike, poor boy, sacrificed his life in assisting to obtain it.”

     Then he went on to tell his parents how his brother, their son, had died “like a true soldier.”  He told them he did not see Ike fall, but he had been told about it by someone who did.  He had been shot through the head.

     He told them how Ike had been buried and said that his grave had been marked, so that he could be brought home in the future.  “And buried with the rest.”  (There is not record to show that this was ever done).

     He then told them he was enclosing a lock of Ike’s hair and that he was saving Ike’s personal items for them.

     Making Ike’s death more difficult was the later knowledge that his death and the battle of Fort Blakely took place six hours after the war ended.  General Lee had surrendered six hours earlier, but communications were so poor in those days that the forces in the South did not know this.

     In the second of the letters found a year ago, dated June 2, 1865, Jim wrote to his older brother at home about communications, “We have a great improvement in this part of the U.S.,” he wrote.  “We now have telegraphic communications with all parts of the country.”

     This letter was sent from Louisiana, and he wrote about post-war problems and conditions.  He also wrote more about the death of their brother and said it was “the hardest task” he’d ever done to write their parents about it.

     He wrote about his hopes of coming home again.  He did indeed come home, the only one of the three DeMar brothers to survive service in the Civil War.  He returned to Madeira, married and raise his family in a home located on Miami Avenue, which is now the site of the Madeira Library.

     These letters, written 136 years ago and carefully saved, give us a personal, immediate, touching glimpse of Civil War history.

     My friend is right about letters.  The letters we write and same today will give people 136 years from now, in 2137, an intimate look at our lives.  Just think about the changes from the 1950’s and 1960’s, compared to today, and what letters from that era can tell our grandchildren.  So tuck away those old letters and hang onto them.  They’re history.