One thing I’ve learned in writing Hattie’s War is never stop digging. Time and again, often when I least expected it, a new tidbit of information, a new resource, or person, would emerge to fill in a missing piece of the puzzle. This post demonstrates what occasionally happens when you keep pushing forward, asking questions, and soliciting help from others.
During the war, letter writing was a major pastime for soldiers. I dreamed of finding Hannibal’s letters. He had to have written letters during the war. It was a long shot… a very long shot. I had all but given up hope.
July 2021 I got an email from Judy Butterfield, a distant cousin who I am related to through Charlotte Wickham, Hannibal’s wife. William Wickham Sr, Charlotte’s grandfather, was the first white settler of the southern Seneca Lake region in upstate New York. The Wickham family has a long history of reunions and has a certain pride in the family’s status in the area. My mother and her sister attended a summer reunion picnic some years ago. The email stated COVID had put an end to the annual event and mentioned a changing of the family historian and keeper of family records. I was glad to hear that since the previous one was of no help and not particularly responsive to my requests for info.
I emailed Judy telling her what I was up to and that I was looking for any info about Charlotte and Hannibal. She was very prompt in getting back to me and eager to help. One of her messages mentioned a woman who might have some information on Hannibal, maybe even letters. She told me she had contacted the woman and told her what I was looking for. A week or so later she wrote saying the woman in question was my cousin Lois Phelps Brown! Lois and I haven’t seen each other in over 50 years. Lois was in the process of moving and would be in touch once she was settled. I couldn’t believe that I actually might put my hands on Hannibal’s letters!
Serendipity Strikes Again
I was home visiting my parents in upstate NY in August 2021 and told my mother about Lois. She said that out of the blue she got a postcard from Lois with her new mailing address. My mother hadn’t heard from Lois in twenty or more years. I immediately composed a letter to Lois and dropped it in the mail. A week or so later I got a letter back from her. She was of course surprised to hear from me after all these years. She said she did have Hannibal’s letters. Her father Donald Phelps had given them to her shortly before he died. Lois told me that her husband of many years Rich had died of COVID early in the epidemic and she had moved in with her daughter in the Cobleskill area of New York State. The letters were in storage and she promised to send copies at some point. I was thrilled but disappointed that I would have to wait. Lois was still reeling from the loss of her husband, I had to remain sensitive to her plight.
Third Time’s A Charm
During that trip home I dropped in on my mother’s sister to see what materials she might have since she and my mother had split the family archives of photos and such. I had my scanner with me and proceeded to scan a bunch of old family photos. She gave me a CD that a distant family member she had corresponded with in 2008 about family genealogy sent her. She didn’t have a CD drive to read the disc and told me to take it with me and send her anything worth keeping once I back to the west coast.
When I opened the CD at home I immediately noticed a file: Transcript of Hannibal Howell Letters. I couldn’t believe it, there it was, a Word doc transcription of his letters. At the time, I had no idea who made the transcript. Did Lois do it? I sent Lois an email. Turns out she indeed she had made the transcript but was uncertain how the woman had gotten ahold of the document. I thanked her profusely for her efforts and once again mentioned how much I’d love to have a copy of the originals. We wrote back and forth a few more times exchanging tidbits of family history. I think we both enjoyed getting reacquainted.
In early October I emailed her and told her I’d finished the first draft of the book and had included one of Hannibal’s letters from her transcription. I once again mentioned how important having copies would be to the book project. A week or so later she wrote and asked for my address.
Below is a letter Hannibal wrote in Feb 1862 from Pratts Point near Washington DC. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see his handwriting. Simply amazing. The letter is addressed to Lafayette Wickham, Hannibal’s wife, Charlotte’s brother. His full name is Mortier de Lafayette Wickham. You can see a photo of he and his wife Pruda along with his obituary below.
Note: I was confused initially by Hannibal’s greeting Dear Brother. I assumed he was writing one of his brothers when I first saw a transcript (I had the transcript before I had copies of the letter). But, it appears that he affectionally referred to his brother-in-law simply as Brother.
What I learned
- Hannibal had a side business selling stamps and envelopes to fellow troops
- he’s optimistic about the war
- he mentions slavery and his distaste for the Confederacy.
- his attention to detail
- his poor spelling
- his quirky way of closing “No more at present.”
What made it into the story
Chapter #12 – Momma Was Right
From one of Uncle Byron’s letters:
… The Reb was one lucky soldier since it just so happened that my brother had a camp business selling envelopes and stamps. He earned enough to keep us both in envelopes and stamps and a few comforts from the Sutter store that followed the troops.
Note: the letter’s greeting, “Dear Brother” is not addressed to one of Hannibal’s brothers but to Mortimer Lafayette Wickham ( see the envelope), one of Charlotte’s brothers. Transcript created by Lois Phelps Brown.