I have long sought to uncover more information about one of my ancestors. My father was named John Leonard Albright after his great-grandfather, a man named John Leonard Miller. This man had been given the middle name of Leonard after his own father, a Western Pennsylvania farmer named Leonard Miller who had built the brick house that still stands on our family’s farm.
Given the lack of good information from some family members about history, it was hard to discover information about him. No one seemed to know where he served, or what happened to him. But in doing a little bit of sleuthing I eventually found out that he had served as a private in the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. I then discovered today that he had died on February 6, 1863, while on picket duty . He had been an anonymous victim of a random encounter in some forest in Virginia, more than likely. Death was a hungry hunter in the Civil War, killing about 600,000 men.
John Miller, born in 1862, had never remembered his father, who had been mustered into service in the Civil War when he was an infant, and then killed after only a few months time. He grew up, and had a daughter of his own, a woman named Edna Miller. And, sadly, his daughter would experience the same war widowhood that his mother had suffered. Edna Miller was a tough-minded nurse, who had married a man named William Filer, a survivor of the brutal trench warfare of World War I. He had been gassed, and died when she was pregnant with their only child, my grandmother, Lucile Filer.
Twice in three generations within the same family line a horrible war had marked my family out for slaughter. Twice a young man had gone into war, with his hopes and dreams, and had either been killed in the field of battle or had his life shattered and taken away far too soon by the brutality of war. The grave is never full, and always hungers for more people to fill it. And few actions fill the grave as rapidly as warfare, whether in ones or twos in small isolated encounters or by the thousands or tens of thousands in massacres and massive battles. As the lines of blue or red or grey advance and retreat across the maps, how many stop to think about the lives destroyed by warfare, or the people at home, the orphaned children and widowed wives whose loss is mourned for generations.
No war is glorious for widows and orphans. We might tell them that their father was a hero and was brave, but how do we understand that the death was meaningful? Even if the result of the war was worthwhile (and that’s not always a sure thing), how does one know that the sacrifice of one’s flesh and blood was part of the required cost, or whether it was pointless. These are deep questions, sometimes unanswerable. And I ponder them particularly strongly because death has marked out my family for the slaughter in many wars, and in such a way as to rob generations of children from their parents, without glory.