- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

When Peoria, Ill., holds its celebration tomorrow in advance of Memorial Day, an unlikely group will participate — at least seven sons of Union soldiers from the Civil War will be in attendance at the local Grand Army of the Republic Hall, as well as one daughter.

That’s right: As incredible as it might seem, these are the “real sons” and a “real daughter” of Union veterans — the first generation, born when their fathers were of great age, and who are themselves getting up there in years.

It will be the third ceremony of its type presented there by a camp of the Sons of Union Veterans (SUV). In addition to sharing stories told them by their soldier fathers, these men will add their own recollections as World War II veterans, bridging the gap from the 1860s to the 1940s. And a teacher brought it all about.

A teacher’s passion

Tim Pletkovich, a middle school teacher in Peoria, attended a national meeting of the Sons of Union Veterans two years ago. He met a “real son” from Michigan and was able to get addresses for several other “Civil War children” as he refers to them. Mr. Pletkovich taught eighth-grade English as well as American history, and he pitched to his students the idea of getting in touch with these very elderly “sons,” whose ages ranged from 75 to 98, and discovering the stories they had learned from their Union soldier fathers. The young people eagerly adopted the project.

Mr. Pletkovich’s graduate studies had been in antebellum history, and he became aware of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in 1997.

“I had long been familiar with the alphabet soup of Confederate organizations … and that Southerners have such a deeper appreciation for local and regional history than do Northerners,” Mr. Pletkovich said. “In my opinion, this is why so many more Confederate ‘children’ have been identified as opposed to Union ‘children.’ Confederate organizations dwarf Union groups in terms of their commitment to preserve American history.”

Tales of two wars

As time passed, some of the elderly men died, but the students who had progressed into Peoria’s high schools kept up correspondence with many of the surviving ones and elicited stories of their fathers’ actions and travails during the Civil War.

What began as an English project for students at Rolling Acres Edison Junior Academy morphed into a combination of history, anthropology and writing. It continued at Blaine-Sumner Middle School, where Mr. Pletkovich also taught.

The students began corresponding with the elderly men, asking for their memories of their Union fathers. When the World War II connection emerged, the memories of that era were also shared. The young people prepared sets of questions that they submitted to the men, and later they were able to meet many of them in person.

The students held seminars at a local library, established a Web site, and turned the whole project into living history. Many seamstress moms and lady re-enactors worked long hours to produce replica Union uniforms for the young men and a collection of antebellum gowns for the young women.

Not a volunteer

A quick look at some of the potential attendees tomorrow shows the variety of the “Civil War children,” such as the four living children of Pvt. Charles Parker Pool, who for four years served with the 6th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. Late in the war, Pvt. Pool sustained a serious knee injury, Mr. Pletkovich said, and ultimately the leg was amputated. His daughter, Mrs. Florence Wilson of Aldridge, Mo., will be in Peoria, along with his sons Bill, Garland and John Pool, all of Bolivar, Mo.

Garland Pool told the students that “when my dad and my mother were married, he was 71 and she was 27. They had five children … four boys and one girl. Three of us boys are still alive today, and the three of us served our country during World War II, two in the Army and one in the Navy.”

Middle school student Crystal Hall asked Onnie Mitchell about his father, the Rev. Cager Mitchell, a private with the 7th West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry. He had enlisted at 22 in Charleston, W.Va. “You asked why my father joined the Union Army. Well, child, my father told me he never volunteered for anything! He said that soldiers just came and took him. A lot of ‘just taking people for service’ went on back then. He was a private and was his company’s bugler” Mr. Mitchell said.

Sultana survivor

One of the sons who has not been able to commit yet traces his history to a survivor of the ill-fated steamboat Sultana. Pvt. William C. Warner had been captured by the Confederates in Alabama in 1864. Interned in Cahaba Prison, he was released at the end of the war and marched 50 miles with several hundred other released prisoners to Vicksburg, Miss.

There, they all boarded the Sultana, its capacity of less than 400 stretched to 2,300 men. A few days later, on April 28, 1865, one of the ship’s boilers exploded near Memphis, Tenn., setting the boat on fire and causing it to sink. By some estimates, more than 1,800 people were killed. In later years, Pvt. Warner told the story of his Sultana survival to his son, Robert C. Warner of San Angelo, Texas.

A participant in Sherman’s march to the sea was the Rev. Nathaniel Amos Whitman of the 9th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, whose son, John, was interviewed by middle school student Ben Smet. Mr. Whitman now lives in Hot Springs, S.D., and may be able to attend. He told the young man, “After my father joined active service in Lexington, Kentucky, his first combat was against [Gen. John Hunt] Morgan’s Raiders.” Some of John Whitman’s recollections came from his mother, the wife of Nathaniel Whitman, who said that “when [he] was in South Carolina, their commanding officer ordered them to burn houses in order to ‘punish South Carolina for starting the war.’” She said that in one of the pages of his diary, he wrote: “Today, we burned more houses. I wept.”

Tunnel vision

Mr. Pletkovich encountered some organizational tunnel vision regarding the existence of World War II veterans who were “real sons,” being advised by an SUV official that there were none. The 43-year-old teacher maintained his equanimity as he gently advised the official that he was wrong, explaining that there were seven “real sons” who were World War II vets in Peoria alone. One of the “real daughters” interviewed by the students was a WAVE in World War II as well.

“This experience elucidates the difference in the Confederate and Union organizations,” Mr. Pletkovich said. “The Confederate ones are organized to a much greater extent and have knowledgeable people always ready and available to help with any questions. There are only 6,700 SUV members throughout the country, and to my knowledge, my kids are the only middle school or high school students throughout the entire nation who have ever solicited the ‘real sons’ to the extent we have.”

With the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington today, the sad fact is that about 1,100 veterans of that war die daily, making the preservation of their stories even more imperative.

A ‘Panama suit’

Other attendees in Peoria will be William H. Upham Jr. of Milwaukee, and Frederick M. Upham of Fort Collins, Colo. Their father, William H. Upham Sr., was a corporal with the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry who was seriously wounded in the chest during the Battle of First Manassas. Initial reports had him listed as dead, and funeral services were held in Racine, Wis., in his honor. Later it was discovered that he was captured after the battle and spent several months at Libby Prison in Richmond until released in a prisoner exchange in 1862.

“During my father’s imprisonment at Libby, he collected some material with which to sew and knitted himself a ‘Panama suit.’ … That suit is still on display at the Wisconsin State Historical Society,” said Frederick Upham, who is 83 years old.

The soldier then went directly to Washington, meeting with a Wisconsin senator and President Lincoln, and where he was able to obtain an appointment to West Point. Upham graduated from the academy in 1866, and he later served one term as governor of Wisconsin before retiring from public life.

Tim Pletkovich’s great-great grandfather, Luther M. Preston, was in the same unit as Upham, also sustained a chest wound, and at a different time also was incarcerated at Libby Prison.

As a result of the middle school project and its widening influence, William Upham Jr. has established a scholarship fund in his father’s name for Peoria middle school students who demonstrate an exceptional interest in Civil War studies.

Unique memories

Sixth-grader Becca Epping talked with Henry Shouse, the son of Dr. Hiram Craig Shouse, a private with the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Henry Shouse shared unique World War II memories with her. He served with the Search and Rescue Corps. Before the advent of helicopters, “we had canoes, snowshoes and sled dogs” for searches and rescues. He was assigned to three locations in Canada and two in Greenland, with men and dogs transported in small planes by bush pilots. He told Becca how they used 100 sled dogs for rescue work during the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was attached “to a M.A.S.H.-type field hospital but not like TV’s ‘M*A*S*H.’” He supplied the students with a photo of the first helicopter ever brought into Goose Bay, in Labrador, Canada by cargo plane.

James Madison Gowin Jr. was interviewed by young Ben Smet regarding Union Pvt. James Madison Gowin Sr. Mr. Gowin, in replying to the student’s questionnaire, said, “It thrills me to have young people wanting to know about our nation’s past, for it gives them wisdom to prepare for themselves, and for our leaders of tomorrow. Mankind has not yet learned that in wars there are no winners, only losers.”

The young people involved in this project have an even loftier goal in mind. They would like to see the first-person narratives of the men and their photographs from both war eras transformed into a book. With 23 vignettes and numerous photographs, it could happen. If so, the activities of a small group of middle school students will have produced a piece of living history for all time.

Martha M. Boltz is a writer in Northern Virginia and a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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