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Kenneth City man discovers a part of himself in a forgotten Civil War survivor

A stone marker now adorns the grave of Cornelius Ridgeway, a “Delaware Moor” Union soldier wounded in 1864.

Handout photo

A stone marker now adorns the grave of Cornelius Ridgeway, a “Delaware Moor” Union soldier wounded in 1864.

KENNETH CITY — A Confederate bullet smashed into Cornelius Ridgeway's left breast and lodged near his heart during an 1864 battle in Virginia, another bloody day in the Civil War.

So many things could kill a person then. Infection. Disease. An operation to remove a bullet long before the days of blood transfusion.

As a Delaware native with a mix of Indian, black and European blood — locals called them Delaware Moors — Ridgeway had been allowed to join only an all-black regiment.

More than a century later, records provide tantalizingly few clues about the then 22-year-old's year in a hospital, except that he survived. A wound like his was usually fatal. If Ridgeway had died in that hospital, much that followed would have been different, much would have been lost to history.

A white Pinellas County resident born long after that Civil War battle knows this well. His name is John Carter.

• • •

Time always fascinated John Carter.

A visitor sat in his Kenneth City home earlier this year when a collection of clocks chimed in the new hour, a discordant explosion of bells and whistles from more than 100 timepieces on every wall.

Carter, 49, collects old clocks. He doesn't like new ones with hands powered by electricity. No quartz wristwatches or digital models. Instead, he enjoys something mechanical, something with balanced weights, a device he can wind and watch as it measures the day.

''I guess all my hobbies have something to do with time."

One pastime is genealogy.

• • •

Carter began researching his family history as a teenager. He quickly sensed uneasiness among some of his older relatives, a tension about race.

Then came his introduction to Cornelius Ridgeway, his great-great-grandfather.

Carter was astonished to discover Ridgeway's Civil War record and wondered why the stories hadn't been passed down to him. He felt pride knowing the prejudice Ridgeway must have endured just to fight in the Civil War.

He tracked down Ridgeway's old Bible, which Ridgeway bought on credit for $12. The names of family members were written on an inside cover. He learned that Ridgeway became a cobbler.

Carter decided he wanted to give something back to a man as responsible for his life as his own parents. If Ridgeway hadn't survived the Civil War, Carter would never have been born.

First, he tried to get Ridgeway awarded a posthumous Purple Heart. But the medal wasn't given during the Civil War, and the government didn't respond to Carter's letters.

Then, Carter hit on another idea.

• • •

Just before Easter, nearly 90 years to the day of Ridgeway's death, a simple headstone was installed at his grave in a church graveyard not far from Dover, Del. Why one had never been laid down before remains a mystery.

Carter got it after he contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs, which affords any veteran from any age the dignity of a stone marker.

At an Easter service, a trustee of the church told the congregation about Ridgeway, a name brought back to life by a great-great-grandson's digging.

The trustee might just as well have recited Genesis: "And God said unto them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.' "

That trustee, himself Carter's distant relative, asked all the Ridgeways and related kin in church that day to stand and give an ovation for Cornelius. Six solid pews, dozens of people, rose as one. Each owed life to this man.

Ridgeway's 11 children raised 26 children of their own, who in turn had 82 children. From there, it's a lesson in geometric multiplication. His descendants number in the hundreds. They scattered to all points of the compass.

That stone was a "thank you" from one of them.

William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3436 or levesque@sptimes.com.

Kenneth City man discovers a part of himself in a forgotten Civil War survivor 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:24pm]
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