Hannibal Howell and his two younger brothers, Byron and Tappan, responded to President Lincoln’s plea in 1861 for volunteers to bolster the Union Army in the early days of the Civil War. The Howell brothers mustered (officially joined) into the New York 76th Regiment Company C on Sept 15, 1861, at Cortland, New York. Within a year, Bryon was discharged after contracting typhus and pneumonia (“camp diseases” killed many soldiers), leaving him with significant health problems his entire life. Bryon died in 1913. Tappan, the youngest, was mortally wounded at the Battle of South Mountain on Sept 14, 1862, and died two weeks later at age 19. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Hannibal and the NY 76th confronted overwhelming Confederate forces at Gettysburg killing nearly half of the regiment in the opening minutes of the battle, including Hannibal. In addition to The Battle of Gettysburg, Hannibal fought at Gainesville, the Second Battle of Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and several minor skirmishes.
Hannibal’s military service generates many questions: Why would a man with a wife and five children volunteer for three years of military duty? Why did the three brothers join together? What were their reasons for joining? Patriotism? Financial? Moral (anti-slavery)? After Tappan’s death, how did Hannibal find the strength to carry on? How did wife Charlotte learn of his death and when? With five children and no means of support, how did she survive?
Hannibal and Charlotte’s 5th child, Harriet, was born in January 1862 when Hannibal was five months into his military service. Was he able to get a furlough to visit his family? Did he ever meet his daughter? The more I dug into the story, the more exciting and multi-dimension it became—what a testament to courage and sacrifice on the part of both Hannibal and Charlotte. I needed to tell this story, but how? With so many missing pieces, how could I pull together a compelling tale?
Two more discoveries helped bring the story into focus and laid the groundwork for things to come. A history student at Gettysburg College, Jonathan Tracy, wrote two articles published in online journals by the college: The Howell Brothers: A Costly Sacrifice on the Altar of Freedom and Hannibal Howell, 76th New York.
Next, I bumped into a distant cousin Brad Thome on a genealogy site who is a gr.gr.gr grandson of Byron Howell. Brad shared a research paper his grandfather wrote about Bryon. He also sent me links to several of Bryon’s letters archived at the University of South Carolina. Bryon went on to become a successful businessman undertaking large infrastructure projects as part of post-war Reconstruction.
I was determined more than ever to tell this story, but I still had no idea how to approach it. Then, one day I met my friend Julie for coffee, and she gave me a copy of “Infinite Hope” a beautifully illustrated book by Ashley Bryant about his service in World War II and his life as an artist post-war. .Julie is a middle school librarian who has been pushing me for years to write a young adult book. The book got me thinking more broadly about ways to construct this family story. Then, a breakthrough: let Hattie tell the story. Hattie is my Gr. Gr Grandmother and mother of Earl Phelps. Earl married Maude Murphy, my Gr Grandmother, whose diaries inspired this incredible genealogical journey in the first place. Hattie had to wonder about her father, perhaps asking many of the same questions as me. Hattie begins corresponding with her uncle Bryon Howell, the surviving brother. In the course of their back and forth letter-writing, Hattie learns about her father’s life, the war, and more. Hattie does what comes easy for her to make sense of what she is learning; she draws, depicting scenes from Hannibal’s life as a soldier. Fictionalizing the story, as I did above, is, of course, necessary to construct a readable narrative, yet I plan to stay true to historical facts as much as possible.
But, it’s Hattie’s story; we shall see where she leads us!
Read more on Creating Hattie’s War.