Kaci Nash, M.A.

the past in progress

Historical Side Effects: Befriending the Dearly Departed

99 Comments

I have a problem with attachment. I am not talking about an attachment disorder wherein I have separation anxiety or am unable to form bonds with the people in my life. No, I am talking about a habit of becoming overly-attached to the subjects of my research. I do not know if this is a common condition among historians or just a weird quirk of mine resulting from some strategically-placed strand of genetic material, but I tend to get invested in the lives (and deaths) of the people I read and write about.

This came to my attention while writing my Master’s thesis. Research for said thesis including reading over fifty sets of letters and diaries written by doctors, nurses, teachers, officers’ wives, but especially soldiers during the Civil War. After reading years’ worth of diary entries and letters—becoming endeared to his colorful personality, sharing in his hopelessness as he wrote repeated letters despairing, “I have not received word from you in months. Why don’t you write me? Have I said something to offend you?”— I always dreaded that last piece of evidence, the letter from a friend or that editorial sentence informing me of the death of the person I had grown so found of. As if being informed of the death of the author of 150 year old writing is a surprise. But there is something incredibly personal about following the journey of someone’s life through their own writing, especially through something as harrowing as a war.

The research project I am working on at present involves reading hospital registers filled with the names and afflictions of Civil War soldiers and inputting them into a searchable, sortable spreadsheet. This might seem like a chore to some people, but for me it is a privilege. The seemingly simple process of reading and transcribing a name can actually be an intimate experience. Perhaps no one has thought of musician Joseph Laycox of the 136th Ohio National Guard in nearly 150 years. But there he is, on the pages in front of me, admitted to the Post Hospital at Fort Williams, Virginia three times during the summer of 1864.

VOL 626 P2Just like people-watching at the airport, it is impossible for me not to imagine the life of this soldier. As a member of a national guard unit, Joseph Laycox was enlisted for a 100-day term of service. Surely, he must have thought that as a musician in a unit that would only exist from May-August 1864, he might serve his country at minimal risk to himself or the R. G. Laycox that enlisted as a musician alongside him— a brother perhaps? They were admitted to the hospital on June 5, 1864, with Joseph complaining of “Intermittent Fever,” malaria most likely. Both men would be sent back to their regiment after a few days’ stay in the hospital, but Joseph was admitted again several days later and returned to duty after ten days.

As I continued down the register, musician Joseph Laycox remained on my mind, for being one of the few musicians who appeared in the records, but also as a name I had seen more than once. And then there he was again. Joseph Laycox. Musician. 136th Ohio National Guard, Company F. Room 4, Bed 35. Admitted August 8. I ran my finger across the columns: Returned to Duty; Deserted; Discharged from Service; Sent to General Hospital; On Furlough. All blank. And finally: Died. August 21. His term of service would have ended nine days later.

Poor Joseph Laycox.

Thoroughly invested now in the life (and death) of the man, I turned to the Internet to discover that he left behind more than just his name on a line in a hospital register. The U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center in Carlisle, PA holds “The Joseph Laycox Papers,” containing a letter written to his brothers and father dated after his second stay in the hospital and a letter to his wife enclosing a poem entitled “To My Wife.” Perhaps he did not know that one day someone might happen upon his letters—or even just his name—and remember him back into a living, breathing man. But his family did. They treasured that little bit of their son and brother and husband enough to preserve his words throughout the centuries. For someone like me, just a bit too sensitive for her own good, who might look upon him as something like her own ancestor, even if only for one afternoon.

The discovery of the existence of this poem reminded me of something I had encountered during my initial research. In Mr. Lincoln’s Fort: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, I remembered there being a poem at the end of the section on Fort Williams. And there he was again, Joseph Laycox, but this time, his own words. “Libbie, I am going to send you this sublime poetry. . . . I think it is the nicest thing I ever saw for this occasion.”

To My Wife
Dearest wife I still remember
With a husband’s aching heart
How it filled my soul with sorrow
When we two were called to part.
Though I’m but a private Soldier
Gone to fill my country’s call
All my trust is in the savior
Let me stand or let me fall.
When I get your welcome letters
As in Dixie land I roam
And you speak of our dear children
How it makes me sigh of home.
Then if we are only faithful
To the lord our truest friend
Safe we’ll rise to realms of glory
Where our bliss will never end.[1]

I do not know what became of Joseph Laycox— whether or not his family came to collect his body, where he was buried, if he had any children to mourn him or pass on his name. But I do know that he existed. And now so do you.

1. Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 74-75.

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99 thoughts on “Historical Side Effects: Befriending the Dearly Departed

  1. Wonderful story! It’s can be hard to make room for personal connections in historical methodology. Indeed, emotional attachment to specific historical figures is a bias that permeates the writing of most historians. While the cold, measured, and balanced approach may serve to be more factually accurate in more cases, it leads people to miss perhaps the most important thing that we historians can uncover: that whether they lived two hundred or two thousand years ago, they were people with the same fears, feelings, passions, heartbreak, and ambitions as you or I. This is particularly evident in private correspondence. Your post illustrates to me that many things change with time but human beings largely stay the same. Bravo.

    • Indeed! I’m obviously able to be objective–it’s in my training–but what drew me to history in the first place is an interest in the human experience. I am always very aware of the fact that the subjects of my research were once living, dreaming individuals, not just evidence I’m using in support of an argument. I think it makes for a much more rewarding experience as a historian.

  2. Freshly Pressed is a wonderful thing to meet bloggers like you. I had a walkabout in the military cemetary of Simon’s Town, South Africa last week, and also thought of all the stories of people lying buried there- the Allied Navies of both World War protecting the route around the Cape of Good Hope, and sailors staying behind in Africa. This is such interesting reading that you provide, that I will gladly follow and learn more about history from you!

    • Cemeteries can be such introspective experiences, and military cemeteries even more so for me. I find it impossible not to imagine the lives these people might have lived, who they left behind when they died. I’m glad this piqued your interest! Thank you for reading.

  3. I feel the same about histories I’m interested in – especially when I read Sharon K Penman’s novels – I was distraught at the end of Llewellyn Fawr and Simone de Monfort

  4. Nice — Thank you for sharing. 🙂 I too enjoy history, especially American and Texas history. Again, thank you for this post. 🙂

  5. Excellent story. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

  6. Thank you for sharing what you know of Joseph Laycox.

    I’m a terribly amateur genealogist, chasing the errant leaves on the family tree for traces of our heritage. My family are comprised largely of Germans who left Pomerania for the verdant fields of Wisconsin, to make their fortunes for themselves. Still, I find myself drawn into their stories, regardless of how far distant our blood relation might be.

    Finding their letters and proof of their personalities is so enriching – I have been able to know these people in some small way. I never met my great-grandfather, but I know how much he loved my great-grandmother by way of the love letter he wrote to her in pencil on graph paper.

    • I’m an amateur genealogist as well. Wouldn’t I love to be able to do it for a living! I have family from Germany (Prussia) as well, but they made their way to the fields of Iowa. It’s so fun to try and piece together their lives, even if it’s only through census records. That is wonderful that you have something so tangible as a letter! Touching something that your ancestors once held in their hands is quite an experience.

  7. Reblogged this on Dancing Humanity and commented:
    I feel I often become attached to the subject of my research too, but only though this attachment am I able to make the clear and tangible to people around me. Publishing their history and making them matter is so important.

  8. Reblogged this on dobymadu and commented:
    Am still thinking about this…

  9. Wonderful to become so involved and invested in something, particulalry learning about what came before us. Our past can tell us a lot about the present, every story contributes to where we are now which for me makes them all the more engrossing.

  10. As (another) amateur genealogist, I find close connection to my ancestors as I try to piece together their lives from birth, marriage, census and death records! I wish I had some of their own writing as well – but I think I come from illiterate stock. Thank you for an evocative post.

    • Thank you for reading! And I feel your pain about piecing together your family. I’m an amateur genealogist myself, and sometimes you wish they would have just left behind a biography or something! I mean, the search is fun, but when you reach those dead ends, it can be frustrating.

  11. Too bad Joseph Laycox will never be able to read this awesome blog!

  12. I know what you feel, not as a historian but as an author (though one of my majors is History). Sometimes I get so attached to my characters, I just want to hug them and say I’m sorry for putting them through Hell and back, even though it was necessary both for the sake of their development and because it’s a horror story.

    • I can understand that as well! It’s not unusual for me to get over-attached to fictional characters too.

      • You want to know the craziest case of over-attachment to fictional characters I’ve ever seen? A girl who’s a fan of the same anime as me made it so that her Facebook name is the same as the female lead of the show, adding the male lead’s last name to it as well.
        Now that’s over-attachment!

  13. Your uncle, whom you never met because he died 8 years before you were born, at the age of 28, while serving in the Navy, once wrote in one of his poems that “I believe my future still lies in my past.” Don’t know if he borrowed that phrase from someone else or not, but I think it applies to all of us in some respects. Especially those with a love of biographical history. –Da

  14. Speaking metaphorically, if someone remembers the stories of the dearly departed, they’re still with us.

  15. I’m working on a memoir, and I’m collecting stories from my family members, the stories of my great-grandparents and grandparents. I find the details, which are all that are left, fascinating. I think the compassion you feel for our collective ancestors can only make your own life richer as a historian and as a human. I try to imagine what it would have been like to live in Lake Lindon, Michigan amongst copper miners from Cornwall a hundred years ago as my ancestors did. How else can I understand my grandparents, and in turn my father and myself? Thanks for your work helping preserve our histories.

    • That memoir sounds amazing! I have always wanted to do something similar, especially since my father remembers a lot of his childhood with his grandparents whom I never met. I’d like to do the same with my mom since I don’t know too much about her side of the family. Do you find it hard to get your family members to open up to you?

      • It’s harder to find the time to ask, stay focused and then write it all down before it starts to feel vague to me. My family all love to talk, happy to talk, let’s talk some more!

  16. This is why I love archival research. Thanks for sharing your story!

  17. Finding people, if even for a moment or a day, validates—or possibly re-validates–them. The act of witnessing, even if only through letters and old records, makes them real again. Sometimes I go Internet searches on minor (and actual) characters out of historical novels. It’s fascinating to find anything about them, as you did for Joseph Laycox. My wife researches family trees, among other things, for a small museum. So many relatives of the principle players had remained officially unaccounted for over the years, that bring them to life again is well worth the many hours of tracking them down.

    Malcolm

  18. This is so beautiful. Thank you.

  19. Reblogged this on Cari's Choices and commented:
    What a beautiful blog….and wonderful to read about the attachment the writer develops with her subjects.

  20. Found you on Freshly Pressed. Really enjoyed reading this enlightening article. It is so important to remember people who have died before us. You brought Joseph Laycox back to us beautifully. Thank you.

  21. ohh, so beautiful. I love the fact that i get attached to the characters and take some part of them with me. I agree I miss them beyond intelligence but I feel I owe it to them. Thank you for introducing such love and passion.
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed. Glad to have crossed by.

  22. It is a little sad to learn how few footprints we leave while walking the short distance between birth and death. And how many of those few footprints are washed away by the tides of time. Will there be any one in the far future still be visible? Will there be someone to see those impressions left by me? Thanks for the nudge you gave with your post. Thoughts like this come all the more to my mind as I’m coming closer to the end of my own journey through the world.

    • I think about that a lot, actually. With everything being digital nowadays, what kind of record are we leaving behind for future historians? How will these digital formats be preserved?

  23. I used to do some housekeeping for an elderly man who had been a funeral director all his life, following his father who had also been in the business all his life. When we were cleaning out his house, shortly before he moved into a nursing home, I came across several large thick ledger-type books in the basement. Looking at the pages and pages of entries, I realized that they were records his father had kept in the early 1900’s. Name of deceased, age, date of death, cause of death, locality where death was recorded, location of funeral, location of burial, name of relative or other person who was handling the funeral arrangements, funeral costs, all in spidery blue-black ink. I was in a state of “Wow!” at this discovery, but my friend shrugged and said they might as well be tossed in the trash pile. What possible interest would anyone have in an undertaker’s ledger from 1909? Well, I was certainly interested, for one. I suggested that he might donate them to some archive. Perhaps to the public library’s local history collection, or to the Polish-American Falcons chapter (his dad had served mostly the local Polish community), or to the local small-businessmen’s association (as a record of a well-remembered local business). I know what you mean, though, about looking at a name in an old register, thinking “Who else has thought of this individual or wondered about him in the last decade or two?” Yet back when this writing was laid down on this page, this was a person whose life mattered to everyone around him. I’d love to have kept those ledgers myself if nobody else wanted them. I managed to save them from being trashed and return them to a shelf in the basement, but I have no idea what happened to them in the end.

    • What an interesting find! (I can’t imagine someone not appreciating those ledgers!) You know, sometimes I wonder what future historians are going to have of ours to examine. We don’t keep paper records anymore. Will these WordPress blogs still exist in some form for them to examine? What will we leave behind for people of the future to connect with?

      • I wondered the same thing once, when I wrote a letter for our city time capsule. In 2001, someone at City Hall stumbled on a 133-year-old time capsule that had been put into the cornerstone in 1873. The most popular item in the capsule turned out to be a letter written by a resident of the city, an ordinary businessman of that era. Reading that letter made us all feel as though we knew him, and saw the world through his eyes. So when the city decided to pack a new time capsule and rebury it for another 133 years, they decided that we needed to put lots of letters into it. They chose 100 prominent people from business, politics, arts, academia, and philanthropic fields. Then they invited letters from 100 “just plain folks”, and I got to be one of them.
        It was very exciting to write something that I knew would still be around when the capsule is opened in 2134. Since we are nobody important, my family’s stuff isn’t likely to be preserved that long. Limited to a single sheet of paper, I wrote small and filled front and back, trying to give each of my family a paragraph to send their thoughts in, to make sure I included names and dates so that we might be “looked up” if there was anything left to look up. But I also wanted to include a thought of my own, to tell the people of 2134 what was on my mind in 2001. And the thought I had in mind was how fragile and ephemeral so much of our stuff is going to be.
        I still had a diary my Grandma wrote in 1933, letters my dad wrote in the early 1960’s, boxes of old negatives and slides from the decades past. But what would my the next generation leave that would still be viewable so long in the future? Electronic formats change so fast, and unless you have the right machines to “read” them, they’re totally blank to you. Maybe that’s why the time capsule contained only a few items on computer disks. We don’t know whether those will still be accessible when the capsule is opened. But unless there is a fire or flood, those 200 letters on plain old sheets of paper should make it to the future just fine!

  24. Great post right there! Visit my blog anytime if you want!

    Best,
    Hart

  25. Thanks for the article. Attachment is human nature especially when we see a little of ourselves in others. Even if they died years before you were born.

  26. I’m in the last year of my History BA, and I’m writing my dissertation at the moment on the Old Poor Law – I’m using poor law administration records and also letters written by paupers, and I am VERY attatched to the people I find in these records. I loved this post 🙂

    • Wow, that sounds like a really interesting topic! How did you come upon it?

      • Well when I was allocated my dissertation supervisor about halfway through my second year, I went to my first meeting with a vague idea about doing some work on small-scale localised migration patterns. When I got there, he introduced me to some of the records left behind by the administration of the poor law in Britain, and I was just hooked, because of the richness of the documents – some of them will form the only surviving trace that a person or a family left on the historical record! So now I’m writing about family structure, migration patterns, women’s work, the legal knowledge of the poor – all sorts!

  27. I find past lives fascinating. I’m sure that getting so emotionally involved with the people in your research makes you better at finding the details. Great writing and work you have here. I am trying to compile my British family tree while living in Canada. It’s hard to find documents. The best part is sitting down with family and hearing the emotion in their stories. It’s all part of who I am. Any historians here have any pointers?

    • I can understand your frustrations about trying to research from the wrong side of the pond. I’ve been trying to research my family’s German, Danish, and Norwegian history and finding it nearly impossible. Have you tried Ancestry.com? It can actually be a really valuable resource. I’m not sure if it will have all of the documents you’re looking for, but it’s a good place to start. Also, if you’re a member, you can access other people’s family trees. So you might find names and sources you can base your research on, plus get in touch with others researching the same thing and pool your resources.

      • I did try ancestry.com a couple years ago and came to a standstill. Maybe I will try again and search the family trees. Thank you for your comment and direction. Good luck with your search.

        • Searching census records is really the best way to track down family members, and ancestry has so many of them available through their service, even for European countries.

  28. This is beautiful, and I understand that feeling of attachment, whether it’s been for ancestors of my own or even famous figures who passed away long before I was born. My dad has a box of letters that were from my grandma to my grandpa when during the Great Depression, he went to California to work and she stayed behind in Oklahoma with their children. The letters were so heartfelt and I could feel how much she missed him. I enjoy hearing stories being told about my family in the past and seeing old photos of how people looked when they were young. It’s absolutely fascinating. Great post, and congrats on Freshly Pressed!

    • Oh, wow. Those kinds of things are invaluable. Have you ever considered digitizing and sharing them? Not only is it a way to tell their story, but someone doing research on the Depression Era could find them helpful in their research.

  29. What a wonderful blog. I too have the affliction of which you speak. It started out with genealogy. I can spend days, weeks, months just reading census records. If you really read them and not just look for your family you can learn a tremendous amount about their lives, their neighbors. Great work.

  30. Beautiful post and narrative! I understand the sentiment as well. I’m researching a turn-of-the-century artist and find all of his biographical details really fascinating. It’s actually filling in the undocumented details and determining his influences that is a lot of fun.

    Good luck with your research. Clearly you enjoy what you are doing!

    • Thank you! What is the name of the artist you are researching?

      • His name is Friedrich (Fritz) Wahle. He was a German Impressionist who did a lot of work as an illustrator. I have a link to my research on my blog!

        • I will definitely have to check it out! I love art. I had a history teacher in high school that taught us European History using the art of the period we were studying. I’ve been an art-lover ever since. The artists that really stuck with me were Spanish for some reason– Goya and El Greco. But then in college I was able to study art in Great Britain, and got turned on to some English artists like Turner and Gainsborough. Every city that I visit, I always try to make it to their art museum.

          • What a great history teacher! I think studying art and history is so complimentary and really enhances your understanding of each. I also love classical Spanish art – especially Velazquez. I’m glad you got to study in GB (I am a huge advocate of travel and studying abroad); I studied art in Italy in college. 🙂

  31. I enjoyed your post. I too, am a lover of history and thought you did a very nice job of helping us get to know Mr. Laycox! I’m getting ready to post an article on my blog about my great grandfather and what he and his family expereienced. Hopefully it will be a good read, like yours! I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • I will definitely have to read that! Writing about anyone’s personal experiences can be quite moving, but especially when it’s your own family. It’s always exciting to see what sorts of things you can discover about yourself by understanding what shaped your family into the entity that shaped you.

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  33. You writing about Joseph Laycox brought tears to my eyes. I starting wondering what happened next.

  34. You are definitely not alone when it comes to becoming attached to your research subject. My thesis was inspired by one of my ancestors, but I found myself really wanting to know more about some of the ladies whose war time diaries I read during my research. Now I am working on a local history paper, and once again have found myself being drawn into one of our previous residents, and his struggles. I think the investment and caring is what makes our papers and research that much more. One thing that I have found is that the more passionate and involved you are with your subject, the more other people want you to research for them. Once I finish this paper, I have two more topics that I have been asked to research and write. I am getting to the point that I am turning people down since I am not paid for this and can only do so much at a time. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • That’s awesome that you’ve become a resource for people! Have you considered charging for your services (even just a small fee). It would be amazing to be able to supplement your income by doing something you love.

      What era did you research for your thesis?

  35. I completely understand your feelings. I’ve done research for several cemetery tours I’ve organized and it’s hard not to become familiar with these subjects as if they are acquaintances. While giving tours I’d find myself speaking of these people as if I had first hand knowledge about them. I think there is something so personal about handwritten artifacts that we feel a closer connection to the subjects rather than sterile typed documents too. Regardless when ever I discover the persons story it’s hard not to become attached. For me one of the most exciting was discovering how many escaped and freed slaves living in Vermont fought for the Union. I would try to imagine the courage that took to find freedom only to risk everything to fight in defense of that freedom and then somehow quietly retire to farming in sleepy Vermont. What an amazing life. I always feel privileged to be in the historian club so that we can glimpse into the lives of complete strangers and understand where we all came from.

    • Cemetery tours! That sounds amazing.

      The history of slavery is such a fascinating, heart-wrenching thing to study. One of the projects that I am working on deals with slavery in early 19th century D.C. and attempts by enslaved individuals to petition the court for freedom. Most of the time, it is unknown whether or not they were successful and whatever became of them.

  36. I think it must be hard not to get personally attached to someone when you spend so much time with them, even if it’s the written word not flesh and blood. You become involved in them and their story and the intimate details of their lives. Thank you for sharing that story and the poem.

  37. Great Post. Definitely an fascinating read.

  38. Thank you for this post. I think that it is absolutely part of the historian’s labor to form attachments with our research subjects. A focus on an individual’s experience (such as yours) can tell us such a rich story– I hope you continue to pursue such stories in your coming research!

  39. Researching my own family history also bolstered in me this kind of personal feeling of history. This age is such a lonely one because people are detached from it, I think. More people should have the feeling you do.

  40. What a beautiful, touching post. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a name on a gravestone or a face in an old photograph belonged to someone real, with feelings and emotions as real as my own.

  41. Thank you for posting this.

  42. I really enjoyed your post! Last year I spent some time researching my own family and found a family member who died in 1889 in the National Military Home in Dayton Ohio. His death was a direct result of the Civil War even though he died so long after the end of the conflict. He was in and out of the hospital for the rest of his life.

    I especially loved your line “Perhaps no one has thought about musician Joseph Laycox of the 136th Ohio National Guard in nearly 150 years.” Very moving post- thank you for sharing!

    • That’s a really interesting find! Your family member was one of an incalculable number of soldiers who died as a result of the war not on a battlefield or military hospital, but several years removed from the war. My own ancestor died thirty years after the war of complications caused by the chronic malaria he contracted during his service along the Mississippi River. Were you able to find what caused your ancestor’s death? A wound or disease?

      Thanks for reading!

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