Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
In this story I'm about to tell you, only one thing is for certain.
The hero dies and it ain't pretty. Beyond that much, I don't know. The records are sparse. And just like they always do, the years have blown the sound of his voice to nothingness. No one remembers what it sounded like and no one ever will again.
His smile? Gone.
His eyes. Were they sharp? Did they pierce right through you or were they warm and just a little sad? There is no point in wondering too much. The answers are beyond our human grasp. There are no photos I can find. No letters mentioning his name. It's almost as if he never was actually here at all.
Except he was.
Oh lord, how he was.
By all accounts- and again, there aren't really 'accounts' so much as a few scattered old census records floating out in Ancestry.com space like the last of the November leaves- but by all 'accounts' William Derry arrived here in Bellefonte sometime in the decade leading up to the Civil War. An 1850 Federal Census shows he was 13 years old that year and living down in Greenwood, Perry County with his mom, Catherine, who was 48, and his sister, Julian, 16, and little brother George, who was just a year old at the time. They were the 165th family the census taker had visited by the time he got to them, so it's doubtful he was interested much beyond the standard questions of the day.
I have no idea who answered the door that day. There is no occupation listed for William's mama, so maybe she didn't work. But I don't know how she would have been feeding three growing kids in that case. Either way, I can tell you that she couldn't read or write. That was one of the questions she was asked that early September day by one JB Porter, the Greenwood Township census taker.
He also asked her if either of her two older children had attended school within the last year. The answer was no.
A single mom raising three kids on her own when she couldn't read or write and they were not heading to school at all.
Were Julian and William working to support the household? At 16 and 13, they sure might have been. But I doubt I'll ever be able to find that out either. How would I, you know? You can dig for years and never find anything. People are lost to time. Unless we save them with words somehow, but it's easier said than done, that's for sure.
Still, something tells me those kids were working. A gut feeling, you could call it. But what do I know?
Turbulent and astounding times in America, those 1850's were.
Railroads and telegraphs had changed the way people lived. Remember when you first held a cellphone? Remember that feeling of astonished trepidation you had in the pit of your stomach as you suddenly realized that nothing was ever going to be the same anymore? Well, imagine what it was like when people first saw a locomotive hurdling by them in a wash of dust. Faster and more powerful than anything they had ever witnessed before, it must have been nothing short of surrealistic to have been alive when those first trains rumbled out across the outskirts of towns.
And aside from that sort of thing, the 1850's were also ushering in a whole new idea about slavery. Some wanted the new western territories to become slave places. Others refused to even consider that idea.
Everywhere you looked, the United States was bubbling beneath the surface with a bizarre combination of thrill and fear.
And at some point in the middle of all that, the Derry family down in Perry County, decided to head north a bit.
To Centre County.
A quick look at the 1860 Federal Census indicates that William Derry was 22 years old, a day laborer, and living with at least 5 other people mostly around his age in a residence right next door to his mom, Catherine, who was living with two adults and two toddlers.
And she was now listed as 60 years old.
Had she aged 12 years in a decade?
I don't even doubt that possibility. Or maybe she didn't even really know how old she was. But all things considered: I think it's safe to say that Miss Catherine Derry was somewhere around 60 years of age during that late summer of 1860, just a short while before all hell was about to break loose.
The Civil War came and he didn't go at first. There's a reason for that though, you know.
Early 20's, probably helping his mom survive, and maybe a dependent for a few other folks too, William Derry surely had his reasons for not racing to join up with one of the local companies joining regiments and headed south to fight. We judge unfairly more often than not. Armchair historians, we see a young guy's age, look at the year, and wonder what his deal was.
Right here would be a time I wish like hell that he could speak up for himself.
"Defend yourself, man, if you can! Tell us how you were able to watch fella after fella march out of town chasing glory in the name of the Union and yet you remained behind!"
What would he say?
What on Earth could he possibly say, you know?!
You’re seeing where I'm going with this? I can't read your eyes so I'm handicapped here, but I'm wondering for sure. You seeing where I'm going with this?
Let me go there then.
Let me wrap this thing up the best I can.
“Well this is the 22nd day of our operations before Petersburg. It’s 3 days in the trenches and two out, with us, and the out is not much better than the in for we do not move so far to the rear but that the rebs can shell us. I am just as thin as a rail (just the condition for this country) yet in good health and strong as I ever was. . . You would be certainly diverted to see me now. I occupy a hold in the ground just long enough for one to lie down in and high enough to set up in, covered with poles and two or three feet of earth to form a protection from pieces of shell.” - Private J.J. Scroggs, 5th United States Colored Troops, Petersburg, Va, June, 1864.
By the early summer of 1864, the American Civil War had already lasted about three years longer than anyone thought it would back at the start. So many young men were dead and gone, so many lives shut down in an instant. The carnage and laying waste had taken it's toll on both sides and yet, the war trudged on. In Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy and the main theater of battle across the past three years, Lt. General U.S. Grant, after unsuccessfully attempting to take the town of Petersburg, had just ordered over 30 miles of trenches dug from the outskirts of the Confederate capital of Richmond out to the edge of Petersburg itself.
Here, he told his soldiers, we will stay, fighting and squeezing until the Rebels can't hold out anymore.
It was the first serious trench warfare ever waged in the US, and it was awful.
But down in those long muddy ditches where the Union boys were dug in deep, something kind of miraculous was happening.
Black soldiers were fighting side-by-side with whites. During the first few years of the Civil War, minorities who wished to serve were almost entirely ignored by both the government and the army. Now things had really changed though. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, The War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, "establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.” Before long, 175 regiments and nearly 200,000 men, mostly African-American, became the United States Colored Troops and marched towards the front lines.
Among them was a 26-year-old young man named William Derry.
Our William Derry?
William Derry. Listed as married in war documents. And listed as 'colored', a word that makes my blood curdle, but there you go. That was the word the government used. Either way, there he went. Private William Derry, Company G, 6th U.S.C.T. From Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
Off to fight the Civil War.
There is a digital image on Ancestry.com if you ever wanna dig for it. It's a photo of a small strip of white paper, black print that reads 6th U.S.C.T. at the top. In different places there are words filled in:
A big ornate cursive 'D' in the top left hand corner.
An inked letter 'F' in all its flourished 19th-century glory where the Co. is supposed to be listed.
Age: 23 years. (Did he lie about his age so he could go?)
Height: 5 feet 4 inches
Complexion: ________ (blank)
Eyes: _________ (blank); hair:__________ (blank)
Where born_____________________ (blank)
No one knew the answers to any of these questions?
I guess not.
Down the card a bit and you hit this.
When: August 23, 1863.
Where: Phila Pa
By whom: Capt(?) Sergeant; term: 3 y'rs.
He was slated for three years, but the war would only last one more.
Then there's this.
Remarks: Enlisted, Killed
by a fragment of shell
while laying in the trenches before Petersburg, Va
June 28, 1864.
Maybe you read the writing on the wall. Maybe you didn't. Either way: he came from Bellefonte. We ought to remember that and pass it on. We ought to share his story with our kids over breakfast before the bus in the morning. Maybe it'll stick.
And maybe it'll be your kid who goes digging for more. Or maybe it'll be one of mine.
I hope it is.
I really do.
There's so much to learn and we're burning daylight.
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