The Civil War still holds fascination for a nation whose history continues to evolve.
And don’t you just love when something falls into your lap — such as original Civil War letters well-preserved in a house for nearly 160 years — and practically writes the entire book all by itself? I’ve just listed this book, published in 2020 and commissioned by the family living the house in Fowlerville, Michigan, and it can easily be looked into on www.Amazon.com. “A Soldier” — Jacob Defendorf; “His Brother” — Dr. Byron Defendorf of Fowlerville, Michigan; and “and a House” — the beautiful structure still standing in the village and where the letters were found.
Well, they didn’t actually fall into my lap but pretty darn close. They actually ended up on our dining room table for a couple months as I guarded their safety by looking at them everyday and working continuously on the book until time I could return these letters to their rightful owners. It was a relief for me once I had sealed them in protective plastic sheets, secured them in binders by date, and repackaged everything in new bins.
I had heard about these letters, even caught a quick glimpse of them years ago. But this last year, I asked the current homeowners if they still had the letters that had been secreted away for all these years, only to be found when the house was moved about seven blocks east of its original location in the early 1930s. For over 60 years, the letters had been tucked behind a fireplace, not to be faded by sunlight nor taken out repeatedly and mishandled nor to even be mistakenly thrown away. The answer was “yes,” they still had them, now safely held by them.
What a find and how lucky for us today. They were generous to allow me to bring the plastic bin into my safe hands, for me to handle and transcribe every letter, note, envelope, anything in the box, and then to collate all into some semblance of order. Not every letter written between son and parents or brother to brother or friend was saved but enough were to create a history of this young man. He left the family farm in upstate New York to fight for the North, him at the underage of 15 (18 being the supposed required age) hoping to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
So many of the letters talk about the mundane life of a Civil War soldier where not everyone enlisted saw battle. Jacob Defendorf did not see battle but he was always at the ready.
His letters to and from his brother, Dr. Byron Defendorf of Fowlerville, Michigan, also provided a view of life in the small Michigan village just as the railroad system was working its way across the state. That early history was hard to find as there was not a local newspaper until 1874. So much can be gleaned from the trading of information and gossip in the written letters.
In our fortunate world of having so much at our fingertips on websites, I made use of genealogy sites and newspaper compilations (in particular, www.newspapers.com) and found a plethora of information about the Defendorf families and the future homeowners of the house in Fowlerville, Michigan.
It was an exciting and engrossing project to take on in an extraordinary year of isolation and quarantine. For that, I will always be grateful. Just a reminder, some things may not literally fall into your lap but figuratively, make sure you are open to whatever falls your way!