As a young boy, Ken Harris looked forward to summertime at Grandma Beulah's in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. He swam, learned to play guitar, bailed hay. Esek Hoff, Ken's great-great-grandfather, had carved limerock in the mid 1850s to build the two-story home at 17 Center St. in Union Springs. It could be spooky for a kid with a vivid imagination, especially in the dark basement where a coal furnace crouched like some fire-breathing monster. Who knew what might lurk in the attic? Ken didn't venture to find out.
Grandma Beulah died suddenly of a heart attack in 1965 and Ken returned to the homestead with his parents and older sister to clear out some furniture.
"I told Ken to check the attic,'' recalled his mother, Georgene Harris, Beulah's daughter.
The wiry 15-year-old boy obeyed. It was dark, but he could make out a leather, soft-sided satchel, similar to a doctor's bag. Other than a tattered army belt, it was the only item in the attic.
Ken muscled the heavy bag downstairs. Wide-eyed, mother and son examined its contents — more than 200 envelopes graced with meticulous script: letters that chronicled a young family's struggle to survive during this nation's darkest time.
Today, 150 years after the beginning of the Civil War, these letters provide an eyewitness account to the deciding battle at Gettysburg and some other chapters of brutality and suffering. But mainly they demonstrate a dedication between a man and his wife, left behind with a baby, a house to run, bills to pay.
The great-great-grandson, now an engineer for an aerospace filter manufacturing company, recognizes his own duty to preserve them and has gone to extraordinary measures while absorbing history he might otherwise have missed. He is grateful that Esek Hoff was tough enough and lucky enough to survive two gunshot wounds and gangrene. He knows that but for an inch or two, there would be no Ken Harris or his two children or dozens of other family members.
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Esek Hoff, 29, a stone mason, joined the 111th New York Infantry Volunteers as the Civil War entered its second year. Few people at the time believed the war would last long, but now President Lincoln was calling for more troops.
Hoff left his wife, Deborah, and their baby son, Edwin. His orders: Report to the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., for training. He wrote his first letter home on Aug. 22, 1862, while aboard a steamboat on the Hudson River. "Kiss Edwin for me,'' he concluded. Three weeks later, Gen. Robert E. Lee sent Gen. Stonewall Jackson to storm Harpers Ferry. Hoff and hundreds of other soldiers were taken prisoner.
Sept. 23, 1862 (Sgt. Esek Hoff to wife, Deborah)
In the morning when we marched up around the brow of the hill, we heard that our forces had surrendered and we had the mortification of stacking our arms to the dirtiest set of rascals that you ever saw calling themselves soldiers. They were shoeless, toes sticking out and they told us that they had not had a change of shirts in five weeks. They looked as though they were tired out. They treated us as gentlemen, not prisoners.
This early in the war, neither side cared to hold prisoners. When they had captured a certain number, they set up exchanges. While the men of the New York 111th waited, they were distressed to read newspaper accounts questioning their quick surrender. They were labeled "Harpers Ferry Cowards.''
Just before Christmas, one of Deborah's letters reached her husband. She worried about reports that some troops had smallpox. But mainly she sought to comfort him with news of the everyday, ordinary stuff like the roast goose her father was preparing. Cayuga Lake, only a few blocks from the house, had frozen for the winter.
December, 1862 (Deborah to Esek)
There is no news here today. Tom Miles drawed me a load of manure to put on my strawberry bed. I have got 10 dollars left and I don't want to break it if I can get along without it.
Esek wrote back, filling every inch of his paper and telling Deborah of dreams that he was home and holding his son.
By midsummer, Esek stopped predicting when he might get home. His unit moved toward Gettysburg as the Union leaders sought to halt Lee's northern advancement. It was at Gettysburg that the 111th New York would find redemption — but at an awful cost.
The unit lost 95 men at Gettysburg, more than any other except the 24th Michigan, which lost 99. Counting all wounded, missing or captured, the New Yorkers lost 249 from a force of 390. They endured a two-hour cannon barrage and then helped repel Gen. George Pickett's famous charge. (See box.) The South's defeat at Gettysburg is considered the turning point in the war, although it would drag on two more years.
Oct. 26, 1863 (Esek to Deborah, near Warrenton, Va.)
I did not tell you that when we charged at Bristoe, a ball came under my arm on the right side. I could feel the wind from it striking my blouse. But a miss is as good as a mile. You say that you are always anxious to hear after a battle. I always will write as soon as possible when anything of the kind occurs and I hope that we are through for the winter.
The New Yorkers avoided any major combat for several months. Then, during three days in May 1864 near Spotsylvania, Va., they suffered heavy losses in the Wilderness, the bloodiest fighting since Gettysburg. Hoff caught a musket ball in one shoulder and was sent to a hospital in Washington, D.C. He returned too soon and developed gangrene. A month passed before he was able to take pen in hand:
Aug. 2, 1864 (Esek to Deborah)
I am using a preparation on it to eat out the matter that has accumulated in the wound. I quite do not want you to be alarmed for I do not apprehend any serious trouble. I have told you just how it is, and you may take it for granted I have told you the truth.
The 111th New York would fight on through Virginia, concluding their combat at Appomattox before the South surrendered on April 9, 1865. Deborah Hoff's letters from that point are filled with disappointment as her husband's return is delayed several times. President Lincoln's assassination leaves her afraid. She describes Eddie watching for his daddy, fishing pole in hand, crying when he doesn't come home.
• • •
Ken Harris and his mother, Georgene (who now lives near Tarpon Springs), set about transcribing the letters — first on a manual typewriter, later on a computer. "We'd sit together for hours,'' Harris recalled. "I'd type some and then she'd type some.''
When Ken left home for college in 1968, his parents stored the letters in a box at their home in Potomac, Md. Ken earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida in 1974, joined Aircraft Porous Media in Pinellas Park and soon married Sandy, a speech therapist. In 1981, he transferred to the company's division in New Port Richey, Pall Land & Marine (now Pall Aeropower), where he still works. The Harrises raised two children, Jason and Teresa.
Ken often thought about the letters. About 20 years ago, while on a trip to Washington, D.C., he met with a historian at the Smithsonian Institute and learned how to preserve documents — everything from removing creases to placing each page in its own envelope. He bought several hundred.
Over the years, he retyped each letter on computer document software. "It took so long because I'd find myself dreaming about what Esek must have been going through,'' he said.
The family visited Gettysburg. "I sat on a hill until Sandy dragged me away.''
They visited Union Springs. Ken thought what life must have been like for Esek and Deborah after the war, how they coped with the loss of so many men from the area, including her two brothers who died prisoners at the notorious camp in Andersonville, Ga.
Tragedy did not end with the war. Eddie drowned in the lake at age 10.
Deborah gave birth three more times. She and Esek lived into their 70s. And because a relative who came along generations later admired the elements those letters represent — loyalty, duty, sacrifice — they live on.