MIDDLEPORT – For more than a century, the letters sat in a tiny Niagara County farmhouse, a precious link to one of the nation’s bloodiest struggles.
The long-forgotten ink – spread across yellowed pages – has roared to life once again, telling the story of a Niagara County man who battled through the Civil War and lived to tell about it.
More than 40 letters from Elmer Fox, who left Somerset at a young age to join the Union Army, are on display in the Royalton Hartland Community Library, 9 Vernon St., through November.
The letters sat neglected in the bottom drawer of a dresser in a Countyline Road farmhouse that served as the Fox family homestead until recently. The land was purchased by ancestors of C. Gordon Porter, a retired farmer, and the house and letters have stayed in the family for more than a century.
“[When someone died], they’d take a clay pot or a chair or something,” said Porter, 87. “Nobody touched the records.”
That was until about a decade ago, when Porter’s family, with the help of Niagara County Historian Richard Reed, began translating the letters from fancy cursive on yellowed paper to a more legible typed collection.
The letters offer insight into the region’s role in the nation’s storied internal conflict, a war that tore the country in half and left wounds that linger to this day.
“It’s the truth of what really happened, as far as the war,” Porter said.
In the letters, Fox writes to his sister – Porter’s great-great-grandmother – about the new places he encounters in the Army. First comes a trip to New York City, then to Washington, D.C., where Fox’s regiment was close enough to have gone there to visit the White House.
It’s not a bad gig for the young farm boy from Niagara County, who gets paid $10 per week for his service.
“My work is easy,” he writes. “I have never been sorry that I enlisted.”
But as the war drags on and the battles become bloodier – a group of soldiers pool their money to send a deceased soldier back home, and Fox is actually captured – the letters take on a different tone.
“I suppose you have heard the fight near us,” he later writes. “There was about 60 killed. I saw one of the Cavalry that was engaged, the [sickish] blood was yet on his Saber.”
Fox’s path crosses such Civil War legends as generals Stonewall Jackson of the Confederates and William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union side. He speaks about his support of “Abraham” Lincoln in the coming election.
The letters also appear to have been a personal outlet for Fox, a connection to home and a way to communicate with his sister about such things as his favorite horse on the farm.
“It’s sort of a romantic story, too, because he had a girl up here he wanted to keep for when he came back,” Porter said. “And he ended up marrying her.”
As the Union Army makes advances and the war draws battle by battle to an end, Fox’s letters become celebratory and the young soldier beams with the excitement of victory.
When news reaches the regiment that Charleston has been captured by the north, “the news is received here with great joy and loud cheering,” Fox writes. “Sherman is certainly striking terror to the Rebel hearts. There are hundreds coming in every night under the cover of darkness and all express hearty desire to return to and take shelter beneath the folds of Old Glory not thinking or caring what their future destiny may be.”
As the North makes advance after advance, the diehards of the Southern leaders urge their army to press on, to no avail.
“They have clung to the cause like a drowning man to a straw, and now many of them seeing its hopelessness are deserting it as rats will a sinking ship,” writes Fox.
He seems to understand why the Southern soldiers haven’t completely given up, “for I will not be partial in thinking but that their home is as dear to them as mine is to me, for which I would sacrifice more than I have, even life without a struggle.”
Fox has a certain distaste for the enemy, especially at the beginning But by the end of his service, those feelings don’t translate into all-out contempt. In fact, the two sides are allowed, at one post, to meet and trade.
“I had a long talk with a Rebel Captain and he expressed his sentiments very freely,” Fox writes. “He said they never expected to gain their independence. I asked him what they were fighting for and he said he supposed it was for justice as much as anything. He even invited me to attend a dance over in Dixie tonight, promising to see me back safe within our own lines.”
“I did not doubt that he was candid enough,” he adds, “but not caring to be a prisoner or run the risk, I declined. He also told me I should dance with the prettiest girl in Petersburg. That was very enticing.”
Library historian Sue Ann Palmer said the letters connect with visitors, especially young people, the way a textbook can’t.
“This is a Niagara County family, and these are letters from the Civil War, and it’s phenomenal [that] people have been able to come in and read the actual letters instead of facts out of a history book,” Palmer said. “There’s so much more of a human story – [it brings it] right to life and the human emotions.”
Director Rose Bernard added, “It’s lucky that it’s held on this long. What a treasure.”