Sunday, February 24, 2019

Your Relatives in Virginia, I Presume You Know But Little of Them

For two years, Anna (Kirk) Rhodes corresponded with her husband Jacob who, during the Civil War, served as a Private in Company B commanded by Captain Ira P. French in the 76th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Between 1862 and 1863, a dozen letters - dictated by Jacob to fellow soldiers who hand-wrote his remarks in pencil - recounted the harrowing hardships faced by Union troops as they marched across the United States and engaged "the Rebels" in battle.

In July 1863, Jacob succumbed to disease in Memphis, Tennessee. Anna was left a widow with children to raise.

The letters, now yellowed and faded, survived and are cared for by Anna's descendants.

It was just last year that I discovered that Anna was a daughter of my fifth great-grandparents Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk (Will The Real Kirk Daughter Please Stand Up?). This discovery soon connected me with a direct descendant of Anna and Jacob who shared the preserved correspondence with me.

Among the many papers were also letters from Anna's brother, James Kirk, who had moved from Licking County, Ohio - where Thomas and Sarah Kirk settled and raised their family - to Crawford County, Illinois. There were also notes from a Kirk nephew (son of Anna's brother Vachel) and niece (daughter of Anna's brother Joseph). 

A single letter from Anna's maternal uncle provided insight into her mother's family.

The Bonars of Virginia

Among the faded correspondence was a note in careful penmanship from Greenberry Dorsey Bonar, brother to Anna's mother - and my fifth great-grandmother - Sarah (Bonar) Kirk. Greenberry D. Bonar was a member of West Virginia's House of Delegates, representing Ohio County in 1865.

This is the only note I've seen from anyone of this generation and provides insights on the Bonar family who still lived in (West) Virginia.

Written on August 2, 1864, the single page with text on both sides is the first that G.D. Bonar has written to his niece following the death of her husband.

G.D. Bonar writes to niece Sarah (Kirk) Rhodes, page 1

G.D. Bonar writes to niece Sarah (Kirk) Rhodes, page 2


Home August 2nd, ‘64

Mrs Anna Rhodes, Dear niece

Your kind letter came to hand. We was truly glad to get it. I have had but little correspondence for several years with my Licking County friends and we are pleased to renew it. 

We had heard of the death of your husband previous to the reception of your letter we were truly sorry to hear it. We are very sorry that you are left a widow with so large a family to provide for. But we should be resigned to God’s will implore his protecting care and do the best we can under the circumstances. 

Your relatives in Virginia I presume you know but little of them. Your Mother’s brothers and sisters are all living except your Aunt Becch (sic.) Brady, we are all old men and women. I am the youngest of the family but one and I am 63 years of age. My oldest Brother, James, visited us this summer. He is 78 years old enjoys good health walks about comfortable. Your Aunt Katherine is 82 years of age. She is very corpulent and uses crutches in walking. Your Aunt Betty makes her home with Brother George. 

My fellow citizens are somewhat exercised about the draft. The quota of our County Ohio is 248. We have had no trouble heretofore in raising volunteers, by the County paying a liberal bounty. I presume our County will pay $300 bounty but it is doubtful about getting volunteers sufficient to fill our quota. 

Wheat crops are very light. Corn good prospect’s good. Hay tolerable good. Apples a fair crop. 

Please excuse me for not answering your letter sooner. Write soon and let me know all you can about our Licking County friends. I have forgotten the names of your Aunt Beccy’s sons in-law. Please write their names and tell me if they have heard of James W. Brady recently. Your friends in this section are enjoying their usual health. My children are all married. Wife and I are an old couple but we carry on our business as usual.

Your affectionate Uncle
G.D. Bonar

G.D. Bonar
West Liberty
Ohio County

Isn't it miraculous that a letter written nearly 155 years ago still survives?

I was struck by the mini-portraits G.D. Bonar, my sixth great-uncle, shared about his and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk's siblings still living in (West) Virginia. His presumption that Anna knew "but little of them" underscores how quickly family history was lost in an era when geography made communication quite arduous and infrequent.

He paints an interesting picture of life during the Civil War and the challenges recruiting men to serve; a difficulty often overlooked in romanticized recollections of the war. His matter-of-fact updates on the crops highlight that the Bonars were farmers, and it was an update that would mean something to Anna (whose own father was also a farmer).

Regrettably, he doesn't make mention of Anna's parents, Thomas and Sarah Kirk (who died in 1846 and 1835 respectively). My hopes for detailed reminiscences that would shed light on their personalities or answer all of my Kirk genealogy brick walls were dashed, but who knows, perhaps there's another letter out there awaiting discovery.


  1. That would be my wish for you, another letter awaiting discovery. What a wonderful find, Michael. This is another reminder of why we should do collateral research. You never know which siblings' descendant may have this kind of treasure.

    1. It's absolutely true, and an important reminder that good research isn't just about depth but also breadth.

  2. I do love the description of Aunt Katherine as corpulent!

    1. I loved that, too! Although I thought it was quite cheeky. I wouldn’t imagine Katherine would have been too pleased with her brother sharing his assessments about her physical size in letters to distant kin.