Letters in the attic

Thank heavens no one in the Lybarger family threw anything away. This letter was written in 1864 during the U.S. Civil War to my great-grandfather Lt. Edwin Lewis Lybarger, 43rd regiment, Company K, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, by the woman who would become his wife. More than 125 years after it was written, my Aunt Nancy Lybarger Rhoades found it and 167 other letters written to Edwin during the war, stored and forgotten in a cherry wood trunk in her Ohio attic.

Nancy Lybarger Rhoades on her 91st birthday in 2006.

Nancy Lybarger Rhoades in 2006, on her 91st birthday.


Nancy Lybarger Rhoades spent five years transcribing these letters. On her 91st birthday, she received a letter from Ohio University Press,  accepting her manuscript for publication with the addition of social historian Lucy E. Bailey’s commentary as co-editor.

Swallow Press, Ohio University, 2009

WANTED–CORRESPONDENCE: Women’s Letters to a Union Soldier (Swallow Press, 2009)

Aunt Nancy died in 2007, but her last years were much happier knowing that the Lybarger letters would be published in 2009.

Aunt Nancy was always the protector of all things Lybarger, aided by her skills as a legal and reference librarian in Ohio. The letters, though, were all written TO Edwin and we had none of his replies. As soon as I’d read the one-way correspondence, my imagination yearned to fill in the gaps. After two years of patient persistence, I finally gained Aunt Nancy’s permission to use the letters as the basis for a novel. She made a remarkable leap of faith in trusting me–I’d never written a novel before. I began to research and write.

Early on this journey, one day, I phoned her to ask how long she thought it would take a horse to travel from a certain town to another certain town in Knox County, Ohio, since she knew the terrain and distances. “That depends,” she said, “on whether the horse is walking, trotting, or galloping.”

Some years later, I completed my historical novel, The Color of Prayer. 

Nancy Lybarger Rhoades and niece, Jennifer WIlke

Nancy Lybarger Rhoades and Jennifer Wilke, her niece, at Christmas time in Columbus, Ohio in 2004.

He regretted writing “Dixie”

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

In 1898, my great-grandfather Edwin Lewis Lybarger introduced his son Harry Swayne Lybarger to Daniel Emmett, the man who wrote “Dixie,” the song adopted by the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Edwin Lybarger was Grand Commander of Ohio for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) for its annual encampment, held that year in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where Emmett lived.

“He was a little old man with a cane,” my 10-year-old grandfather Harry wrote in his journal.

Emmett’s original lyrics (recorded 1916)

Union version of Dixie

Dan Emmett performing in blackface before 1860.

Dan Emmett performing in blackface before 1860.

Forty years before that meeting, Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) was a vaudeville performer with Bryant’s Minstrels, a troupe of white musicians performing in blackface, an unfortunately acceptable performance style in the 1850’s. They performed Emmett’s song “Dixie” for the first time at Mechanics’ Hall in New York City on April 4, 1859.

To Emmett’s life-long dismay, the song became an indefatigable symbol of nostalgia for the defeated Confederacy and the Old South.

“Dixie” tells the story of a freed black slave pining for the plantation of his birth, the lyrics written in an exaggerated version of African American vernacular, intended for stereotypical comic effect. “If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put the song,” Emmett later said, “I will be damned if I’d ever written it.”

In the 1943 Paramount musical biopic titled Dixie, Emmett was portrayed by Bing Crosby.

Cat in box stole his heart

In 1909, my great-grandfather Edwin Lewis Lybarger and his wife Nancy Moore Lybarger traveled from Warsaw to Newark, Ohio for the GAR Encampment of Civil War veterans. They stayed with Uriah Brillhart and his wife Ida Severn Brillhart. The Brillhart family had lived in Spring Mountain, and Uriah would have been a young boy when Edwin returned in 1865 at the end of the war.

Among his papers, Edwin kept this old newspaper clipping:

Article in Ohio newspaper, 1909Capt. E. L. Lybarger at last is the possessor of a pretty little maltese kitten. For several years the Captain has been the lover of beautiful cats but could not keep them in his possession. He has bought them, had them given to him by the dozens but something happened to each of them, they either died or strayed away to some other place.

Capt. Lybarger was attending the G.A.R. encampment at Newark, Ohio this week and one day he was visiting at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Uriah Brillhart. The Brillharts owned a little maltese kitten which as soon as was seen by the captain captivated his heart. The Captain told Mr. Brillhart of his luck with cats and said that if he had any way of taking the kitten home with him that he would steal it. The conversation was then turned to other topics and the subject was dropped.

Maltese kittenWhen the Capt. and Mrs. Lybarger were getting aboard their train for home Friday, Mr. Brillhart handed the general a small box saying that it was a souvenir of the encampment. After the train pulled out the box was opened and there snuggled up within the box was the baby cat.

The captain carried the kitten home with him and it is now drinking milk and eating strawberry short cake.