Hattie Howell is spitting mad; the boys in her class are making fun of her chalk drawings again. When Arthur Phelps reaches for her chalkboard, she yanks it back, accidentally hitting him above the right eye with her elbow making a loud thunk. Embarrassed more than pained, Arthur dashes out the classroom door, holding the growing lump on his head, his hysterical pals trailing close behind. Miss Clark, at her desk, pretends not to notice a slight smile on her face.
The youngest of five children, 12-year-old Harriet “Hattie” Howell, loves school and adores her teacher, Miss Clark. Precocious with an artistic bent Hattie has a mind of her own and is not afraid to express it. In the tiny farming town of Hector, New York, everyone knows Hattie and thinks her demeanor and behavior are far from proper for a girl her age, everyone that is but her mother Charlotte and teacher Miss Clark.
Since the death of her sister Jennie from scarlet fever several years ago, Hattie has been preoccupied; some would say obsessed with another death, the death of her father. All anyone knows is that Hannibal Howell, age 37, was last seen alive at the edge of a cornfield along McPherson’s Ridge in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1, 1863. Hannibal was a soldier in the Union Army of the Potomac, New York 76th Regiment Company C. Outflanked and outnumbered by Confederate troops; the 76th was the first to see action that day in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Within the first twenty minutes of fighting regiment commander, Major Andrew Glover was shot and killed along with nearly half of the New York 76th. Regrouping in the shelter of an unfinished railroad bed, the 76th fought back aided by the New York 147th and the Pennsylvania 56th regiments. By nightfall, Union troops had retreated to Cemetery Hill. The dead and wounded laid behind Confederate lines for the remainder of the three-day battle, Hannibal among them.
What happened to her father and why is what’s gnawing at Hattie. His body was never recovered, his final resting place unknown, his last words unheard; these thoughts haunt Hattie. How could he die and leave his family behind? Why did he go off and leave her, a daughter he never knew? Strong-willed Hattie Howell wants answers, needs answers.
And so… a story begins: “Hattie’s War.”
Hannibal Howell, along with 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 26, 1862, and died two weeks later at age 19. 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)? How did Hannibal manage to persevere after Tappan’s death? How and when did Charlotte learn of Hannibal’s death? How did she manage to survive with five children?
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. To make sense of what she is learning, Hattie does what comes easy for her, 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!
Oh, by the way… Hattie married Arthur Phelps in real life.