“The communication /
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
– T.S. Eliot
It was great fun coming of age as a child in middle-class America after the Second World War. This was especially true around supper time, when pitched battles would regularly ensue to amuse and divert us from an otherwise bland and boring round of meals. One sometimes forgets that this was a time before our parents made the happy discovery that suppers need not always consist of meat loaf and boiled potatoes.
Actually, my parents never made that discovery. But it scarcely mattered anyway, since the point of dinner was less about the food than the fight, particularly when it turned political, which it always did since my parents were hopelessly disagreed about everything political.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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My mother, born in the South and raised in a family where privilege and class were taken as givens—as necessary to the order of the universe as the sun and the stars—early on acquired a high conservative sheen, which she kept burnished to the very end, voting Republican every time.
My father’s background could not have been more different, shaped by the Shanty-Irish origins of his own family (at least on the paternal side), which saw the Depression as a time of real struggle and FDR as its savior. He became a Democrat, of course, welcoming JFK and the New Frontier, even as evidence of its failures began increasingly to mount. These were the last roseate days of American Innocence.
Still, he remained ardently, impenitently Democratic for years and years, mindlessly pushing the same lever every election cycle until, around 1980, reality set in and he, along with millions of other disaffected Democrats, pitched in to help elect Ronald Reagan. That was his metanoia moment, I suppose, after which he never strayed. Had he lived long enough to vote for Trump, I’m sure he’d have done so with zest.
But the arguments around the family table persisted even after they’d begun sharing the same presidential ticket. I imagine that, having grown so accustomed to combat alongside the cuisine, there really wasn’t much else to do at supper. As for the rest of us, well, we all relished a good fight, and so we’d choose our sides accordingly. And since my own instincts turned out to be every bit as combative and reactionary as those of my mother, I soon became the right-wing nut that refused to crack or be cracked. Bloodied but unbowed might be an apt description of not a few dinners from those years.
There was one unifying theme, however, joining us happily at the hip, and that was a shared sense of family history. This was particularly and most vividly shown on my mother’s side of the family, which she claimed was covered with grandeur and majesty—none of which may have been true, by the way. It was one thing to claim common lineage with, say, Caesar Rodney, the statesman from Delaware who put his signature to the nation’s Declaration of Independence, however improbable the connection. I mean, what on earth were her people doing in Delaware? Preparing the ground for future statesmen like Joe Biden?
But to lay claim to General Robert E. Lee? Now there was a bridge too far. Of course, as I got older and perhaps grew more cynical, it occurred to me that almost everyone born and bred in the South would sooner or later lay claim to Lee. But about her connection to the Lee family, my mother remained fierce and resolute whenever the subject came up.
Leaving maternal mythology to one side, however, it was only when we got to my father’s family that things really became interesting, especially since all his connections were provable—although it has taken a long time to confirm one very special story.
It was some years ago that I came across an old newspaper clipping from the year 1913, evoking a place and time long before I was alive. It was about a relative of mine on my father’s side. Had the story it told turned out differently, I would not have existed at all. Nor, for that matter, would any of my children. It’s a wonderful story and one which, unlike the tall tales told by my late mother, is altogether true.
Here is a bit of background to the story. In July of 1864, exactly one hundred and fifty-eight years ago, Confederate troops occupied the town of Frederick, Maryland, which they threatened to raze to the ground unless someone came up with two-hundred thousand dollars to save it. In due course, the money was found, and the enemy decamped, resuming its march on the U.S. capital in Washington, D.C., which they did not occupy.
That very same month, my great grandfather, Michael Baldesberger, returned to Pittsburgh to end his enlistment as a Corporal in the Union Army. He had fought in three separate engagements in the vicinity of Frederick, including the Battle of Gettsyburg (1863), where he’d been taken prisoner and later exchanged. Wounded in all three engagements, it is a wonder he survived the Civil War at all.
It is not unlikely that he spent time in Frederick, given its location as an important crossroads (Gettysburg is only 35 miles away), either moving through the city along with other Yankee soldiers headed for battle, or convalescing there in one of its several hospitals. Incidentally, the other two battles he fought in were both in nearby Virginia—Fredericksburg in 1862, which was described as a “butchery,” so great were the number of dead on either side, and the Spotsylvania Court House (1864).
These are places I have been to. Indeed, I have been there as recently as last month when my wife and I stayed in Frederick for our son’s wedding, followed by a week’s vacation along the Outer Banks. We returned home through Virginia, where we spent a night in Fredericksburg, which is only a few miles from Spotsylvania where my great grandfather also fought.
Moving among such hallowed places—steeped, not so very long ago, in the blood and the dust of a terrible Civil War—I thought of Solzhenitsyn, who saw his mission as one of reviving the memory of another people, “amputated,” he said, by seventy years of Soviet-enforced forgetfulness. “Whole speechless generations,” he warned, “are born and die off who do not tell each other about themselves.”
And so, on coming home, I wanted to set down what I’d read about Michael Baldesberger, this ancestor of mine from a time two centuries before my own, in order to remember the connection he and I share. And I wanted to tell others about it, knowing that, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in Four Quartets, “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, / For history is a pattern of timeless moments.”
Michael Baldesberger was born in the year 1839 in a German-speaking village in Switzerland. But he seems not to have stayed there very long because by 1854 he’d become an American citizen, living on the South Side of Pittsburgh, in the Parish of St. Michael’s. He and his first wife, Teresa, were married there. And when she died in 1880, she was buried in the cemetery next door.
His second wife, Martha, who was also Swiss, became the mother of eleven children, one of whom was named Agnes. She was the grandmother I never knew. She died in 1949, three years after I was born.
At some point, he and his family left Pittsburgh, moving to a little town called Venetia, which is not far from Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the town where I spent my childhood and youth. He became a farmer and by all accounts prospered. But it was not easy. It was bloody awful, actually, owing to the fact that the War Department, during the five weeks he’d spent as a Confederate prisoner, assumed he’d deserted his post, a mistake which would take a half-century to clear up. Thus, that was the point of the newspaper clipping I’d found:
Civil War Veteran’s Record Is Cleared
Michael Baldesberger of Allegheny County
Brave Soldier at Gettysburg
Once the story got out, of course, the cloud lifted, honor was restored to his name, and the pension he’d been promised returned to his family, who could certainly use the help. Later in that year, he would travel to Gettysburg to join his comrades in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle at which he’d bravely fought, been wounded, and then captured.
Three years later, my great grandfather would die, his body laid to rest amid a plot of graves belonging to the Martin family in a little town called Castle Shannon, then a thriving coal mining area. In another three years, my father would be born. Ninety or so years later he, too, would be laid to rest, alongside my mother and two of my brothers, plus a number of uncles and aunts and cousins on my father’s side.
The man who, by my reckoning, began it all was 5’8” tall, and it is with gratitude that I remember him as both patriarch of the family I was born into and patriot to the nation he served.
A people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn
[Image Credit: Unsplash]