Clippings: Mystery leads to veteran’s story

For years they sat in an old cedar chest, an odd coupling among a morass of ramshackle household furnishings and chachkas harvested from my late grandfather’s home when he died around seven years ago.
The first item was a leather-covered, wood-framed box, around 14 inches by 15 inches. The opening flap bears a large, white number “13,” with a few buckles and strap remnants at both ends.
What the heck was it? An archaic football equipment container? A Pony Express mail tote? I had no idea. It was in pretty rough shape, but I decided to give it a reprieve from the dumpster at least until finding out if it was some relic from the past that we should keep.
The second item, stored next to the “black mystery box,” was obvious. It was a pair of weathered saddlebags. While they had some considerable age on them, they were in pretty good condition. The leather was brittle and thirsty for restoration, but I didn’t really think they were worth the effort. I figured one of my ancestors rode a horse in the days before cars, and decided to hang on to the saddlebags for sentimental reasons. That struck me as kind of strange, because there wasn’t much storage capacity in either one of the bags. But I decided to hang on to them as well, in large part due to their possible connection to the mystery box.
Several years went by and the old relics remained forgotten in our house, as they had in the attics of my predecessors. I decided to dust them off, however, after hearing about an antiques appraisal event in Middlebury on Nov. 5 to benefit the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. I must admit, I felt like a child bringing an old sneaker to show-and-tell at the Smithsonian. I fully expected the appraiser to say, “You have a 19th century gardener’s turnip basket and saddlebags, they are worthless and might carry disease, would you like me to chuck them for you?”
But it didn’t turn out that way.
I was flabbergasted to learn that the mysterious leather box was in fact a Civil War soldier’s backpack. The appraiser explained that the “13” undoubtedly represented the company or regiment to which the soldier had been assigned at one time or another.
The saddlebags were indeed related to the backpack, at least tangentially. Turns out they were McClellan model 1859 Union cavalry saddlebags made at the Allegheny Arsenal and issued in 1861, the year the Civil War started.
The two items, I was told, had a little financial value — which made me glad I hadn’t impulsively relegated them to the trash bin. But what really intrigued me, as Veterans Day approached, was finding out who among my ancestors had toted this backpack and saddlebags as a Union soldier during the bloodiest war in our nation’s history.
Since my parents and grandparents are no longer alive to provide clues, I went to my loosely organized family scrapbook. There, amongst various yellowing documents, I found a “notice of enrollment” into the Union Army for Henry H. Park, a relative on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
An Internet search revealed that Henry H. Park was a second sergeant with the 1st Battalion New York Sharpshooters.
I remembered a stash of Henry’s Civil War letters, which had been graciously transcribed by my wife’s uncle and Bristol Historical Society member Gerald Heffernan.
I pored over the letters again.
Feb. 9, 1863, Arlington Heights, Va.: “Dear Brother Joe… Here we are on sacred soil at last. All alive and well. We got in line again and went down to get aboard the train and started… We got (to Washington, D.C.) at around 11 o’clock Friday evening… The next afternoon, Lt. Woodin and myself went to the Capitol. We went to the Senate chamber and saw the vice president and many other big men only we did not know them… It is an immence (sic) building, I can tell you it must be seen to be appreciated. It was reception day for the president or we probably should have seen him.”
July 2, 1863, recovering from illness at Whittaker Hospital near Williamsburg, Va.: “Dear Brother Joe… They are getting rid of the convalescents as fast as possible and today the surgeon has been down to Yorktown to get a train of ambulances to take us down there or rather all that does not belong to Regiment 138 NY… We haven’t heard a word from any of the boys since they left us here and I can tell you it makes it lonesome enough for us here. I am in a hurry to get back with them again. This is the first time I have been separated and I hope it will be the last. I suppose they are in danger, but I enlisted to go with them and I am willing to share all the dangers they are exposed to with them.”
Henry Park made it through the war, and saw fit to leave a few mementos behind — perhaps hoping some inquisitive descendant would do a little research and make sure no one forgot his sacrifice and the horrors he undoubtedly witnessed.
Mission accomplished.
Thank you, veterans.

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