Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 1, 2013

Truth at the heart of a story or message makes family memories special

— My great uncle, Lt. Andrew Stewart Eagleson was sent to Alexandria, Va., in early February of 1863 and, as a result, he wasn’t part of Gen. George Mead’s Army that met Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army in Northern Virginia 150 years ago today in the farming community of Gettysburg, Pa.

The soldiers serving in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserve had already seen their share of death in the battles they fought in before Gettysburg. My great uncle was hit by three Mini balls at Antietam — one in the wrist, one that went through his jacket and another one that grazed his head — but that was part of a story that my Uncle John Eagleson told the Washington Observer in 1955 when he was 90 years old. Mom saved a copy of the newspaper in a dry cleaner’s wrapper. I can read the story any time that I want to.

When he traveled to Pittsburgh to volunteer with the 8th Pennsylvania Reserve in July of 1861, Stewart Eagleson, who was 25 years old, was appointed corporal. By the time he mustered out on May 24, 1864, he was a lieutenant and in command of Company K. With each battle — Mechanicsville, Glendale, “bloody” Malvern Hill, 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness and Spottsylvania — the ranks of the officers and enlisted men grew thinner and thinner. In three short years, they went from being farmers to being warriors.

I was blessed that my great uncle came back alive and was able to become a farmer again. After returning from the war, Stewart Eagleson married the girl he left behind, Jennie (Pyles) Eagleson and they lived on a farm located on a small hill, less than two miles from the northwest Washington, Pa., city limits. After the Lincoln Gas & Oil Co., bought the old Eagleson farm circa 1916 or ’17, it became known as Lincoln Hill.

John Eagleson’s house sat at the top of the rise overlooking the city of Washington about 30 yards off the Old National Pike. The hill was called Sugar Hill because a Conesetoga wagon headed west spilled a barrel of sugar there, and the barrel was besieged by young boys with tin cups before the teamster could recover the barrel and its contents.

I have a vague picture in my mind of old stuff and a ticking grandfather clock inside the Eagleson house, but I remember everything about sitting outside on the porch. The yard was mowed and trimmed, but the porch was enveloped by boxwood hedges and honeysuckle. From the outside, it appeared as though the porch was overgrown, but from the inside looking out, it seemed like everything was perfectly groomed and in its place. Sitting on the porch with a cool glass of ice tea was about as pleasant as anything I can recall. I didn’t have to work. I remember relaxing when I was on that porch.

Since I work at a newspaper, I can tell that story and many more. I can jump on the porch with one story, and hop back in my Freightliner to finish a different story. It’s not because my family were Yankees, and besides I’m sure that some family members likely didn’t follow the path that my great uncle traveled. The Eaglesons lived about 32 miles from Wheeling and 35 miles from Pittsburgh. They were right handy to history in either direction.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to hear Clate Dolinger tell his family’s story at the Pembroke, Va., post office. I would later find out that his story wasn’t welcomed to be told when the Postal Service formally dedicated a Forever stamp featuring images of skirmishes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Apparently, some people question the validity of a story told by a grandmother to a grandson with only an old photo of a family heirloom to support the oral tradition.

I was very young when I sat on my Uncle John Eagleson’s knee, and the only reason I recall so much detail is because an intrepid reporter decided to interview my uncle and share his stories with Washington Observer readers in an article that ran in the paper on Uncle John’s 90th birthday, April 25, 1955. The picture in the paper matches the memory I have of my uncle, but the details in the story help me remember that we talked about a lot of things that afternoon. I was at a stage in my life when I said “Why?” a lot, and he was at a stage in his life when he enjoyed sharing old stories with anyone who would listen.

Every family has a story to tell. While all of those stories won’t make it all the way into a history book, none of the stories should be censured because their stories don’t carry an accepted message. Life changes and messages can become refined over time, but almost every tale — no mater how farfetched — can have truth at its heart. What an honor it was for me to hear Clate Dolinger’s story and to be able to share it with readers! Sometimes, I love being in the right place at the right time, as though that’s the way God planned it.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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