R.I.P., R. P.

Not too long ago I went to a cemetery to visit the grave of a man I didn’t know. He didn’t know me, either. In fact, if his current status permits some knowledge of us, he was probably quite surprised by my visit. I like to think he was also pleased, and maybe even relieved.

The cemetery is in Portland, Oregon. It is a small hole in the wall. Or, more accurately, a series of holes next to the very large wall of a U-Haul depot in an industrial part of town that was in all probability less industrial when its vocation as a final resting place was imagined and established.

The man was a Civil War veteran. His small, simple tombstone declares only his first two initials, his family name, and “CORP. 41st OHIO INF.” The man’s first two initials were R. P. His family name was — almost — mine. Most of the raised stone letters are worn, some almost completely illegible. I wouldn’t have known it said 41st if I didn’t know something about him.

In my lifetime, R. P. has been a controversial figure, though I don’t know if he was controversial in his own.

R. P.’s 41st Ohio fought in several important battles of the Civil War. When R. P. mustered out of the Grand Army of the Republic in San Antonio, he remained in the South, and by 1867 had made his way to south Georgia. There he married the widow of a Confederate soldier and began farming. He was among many who did so. They had been married less than a year when he took the cotton crop to market and never returned. The wife he abandoned was pregnant with his son. Neither they nor their offspring ever heard from or of R. P. again. Surely he was among many for whom that, too, might be said.

In generations older than mine, any discussion of R. P. was generally accompanied by expression of clear relief that he had married the mother of his young son. While there was some shame to be borne that he was a Yankee soldier, at least they were married. Conversation about R. P. usually included that fact and little else. He was by no means a respected or beloved figure among his progeny. In my generation and those generations younger than mine, nobody talks about him at all.

I am his great-great grandson, have known of him for decades, yet confess that I gave him very little thought in my lifetime.

The only reason I know of his grave is the internet. Genealogy is much easier than it used to be, and my father has accumulated an impressive amount of information about R. P., his great-grandfather. Most of that information comes from descendants of R. P.’s siblings who have tracked and traced facts that my father’s branch of the family neither possessed nor sought to acquire. The digitization of veterans’ and federal benefits records, and of the census, revealed a great deal about R. P. and his movements and entourages to those who undertook to research his life. His story is one that would not have been imagined by those he had left in south Georgia and the generations that followed them.

Of particular interest is the fact that the name he passed down to me differs by only one letter from the name he used both before and after leaving it as part of my legacy from him. Whether that difference is due to the vagaries of contemporary spelling or his ineptitude or sloth in crafting an alias for the short chapter of his life that was inscribed in south Georgia is unknown.

The context of the assembly of facts about his life is, ultimately, that R. P.’s story was representative of its times during those defining moments of the nation’s evolution and projection.

When he left his wife in south Georgia he returned to Ohio, whence he had enlisted in the war. There, he quickly married another woman, and they had two daughters. We thus know that R. P. was a bigamist. Surely that might be said of many like him. The family moved to Michigan, where one daughter died, young.

Some years later, the remaining daughter was stricken with consumption. R. P. accompanied her to a spa in La Veta, Colorado, a town south of Denver, where one of his brothers had settled as a farmer, businessman, and proprietor — or at least manager — of a sulphur springs bath. R. P. took her there to be cured, but the cure did not take and his second daughter, too, died, young. He took her body home to Michigan.

In a compelling part of the story that neither surprises nor shocks those of us in subsequent generations, R. P.’s nephew, Elmer, among other pursuits, “tended” billiards halls in Colorado, and he, too, died young.

Not long after R. P. bore the body of his daughter back to Michigan, he and his wife headed west. They ended up in Portland. R. P. didn’t last long in Oregon and was buried where I found him. His wife remarried and is buried elsewhere. So R. P. has been truly alone.

R. P. does not enjoy the status of respected or beloved ancestor by my family, yet I was overcome by sorrow visiting his grave. He died not knowing the son he left behind in Georgia — perhaps not even knowing that his wife was expecting — and surely still grieving the two daughters he lost when they were young. Imagine the constant weight and special pain R. P. must have felt after surviving the horrors of several Civil War battles only to outlive his children. Imagine the pride and, perhaps, solace R. P. might have derived from knowing his son, by then an ordained Methodist minister. As the cemetery that was his destination is not a veterans’ cemetery, the only sentiment of his we can be certain of is the importance he placed on his rank and affiliation with an infantry unit in a war that had ended more than forty years earlier.

So R. P. could not have expected my visit — someone four generations after him, yet from him, calling on him to pay my respects. He could not have envisioned the many of us who now bear his (wrong, fake, misspelled, or, possibly, true) name. As far as he knew, he had not conferred it on a succeeding generation. Thinking of our current number provoked me to pour a libation on his grave. All I had was half a travel mug of coffee, so that had to do.

As far as I know, I am his only descendant via his son to visit his grave. I felt a strong sense of having honored this man somehow, even though I have no insight into what he considered an honor, other than the military service that defines him on his tombstone. I, in turn, felt honored to be with him, if only for a brief instant of his long, lonely repose.

N.B. This piece was also published on my personal website