Out in the shed behind our shop I’ve kept an old travel-bag given to me by my grandmother in the year before she died. When she gave it to me I might have given it a cursory glance — those were busy times, full of constant change — and before long that old bag sank deeper and deeper into the ocean of higher priorities. All this time I’ve known the bag was out there, calling my name and aging ungracefully in a poor environment, but what with one thing or another, I’ve just not managed to answer the call.
Fortunately, that old shed is mouse-proof, so what may have been a disaster turned out quite well when I finally got out there the other day, claimed the bag from a top shelf, and brought it back to the house for a long overdue inventory of its contents.
I brought the bag upstairs to my study, set it on the table, and then sat down and quietly opened up a portal into another world.
The first thing I encountered, beset with a bluish tinge of mold and in a state of steady disintegration, was the front page of the Decorah Public Opinion from March 31, 1938, out of Decorah, Iowa. I managed to unfold the paper without wrecking it, and right there, above the crease, beside a photograph entitled “Broken Draw Bar Wrecks Train”, with an instructive caption revealing that nineteen out of forty-three loaded freight cars derailed at 35 mph on the Nickel Plate Line, and opposite another article declaring that one Mr. Elmer Gripp was found Not Guilty after being charged with leaving the scene of an injury accident, was a 1000 word obituary headlined in all caps and bold ink:
Henry Steen, Civil War Veteran, Is Dead—Last Survivor of Six Brothers Serving in Civil War
Henry Steen was my great, great grandfather.
Over the years I have paid particular attention to my family history. Not because my family is in any way unique from anyone else’s, only that from a very young age I have been imbued with an abiding appreciation for the experiences of my ancestors. I’ve wanted to know them, or at least about them, and so maybe learn something about myself as I’ve traveled through this life. And it is the Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri branches of my family — Norwegians, Germans, and Dutch — who all wound up farther west at one point or another, that I have learned the most about. I think that is because those people, too, took particular pride in who they were, and where they came from, and were at pains to preserve some evidence of their lives for posterity. They saved clippings, photos, letters, and other incidentals, and they passed on a passion for writing and photography still evident in my relations today. They created gifts out of the special moments in their own lives, and preserved them for the rest of us.
But back to Henry. I have known about Henry Steen because, as young boys do, I asked a lot of questions of my grandparents. My grandparents were happy to engage in these discussions because, I think, it rekindled their own memories of people, places, and times that were forever fading into the gray background of their lives. So they told me about Henry, about Barefoot Clarence, a tramp who lived in a hobo camp on the farm in Iowa, and could some days be found on the porch, eating dog food. They told me about The Conehead, another tramp who passed through and whose head — I have a photo — was shaped precisely like Dan Akroyd’s character from SNL. All of these stories have pressed together to form the anthology of my family’s history in North America.
So I knew something of Henry. I was aware that he had enlisted in the Union Army along with his brothers. I knew that he was a Norwegian. And I knew what he looked like because I have pictures of him among the many photographs I asked for, and received, from my grandparents — so that I might preserve them once again, for my own grandchildren, and for their grandchildren.
But surprises come from old bags full of stuff — what else are old bags full of stuff good for? — and here is what I learned, that I didn’t know, from the Public Opinion’s front page obituary of Henry Steen: He was born in Akers, Norway, on September 20, 1843, son of Thron and Ingeborg, who came to America and Winneshiek County in 1852. They settled on a farm near Glenwood Township. He was 94 when he died on March 21, 1938, at the Veteran’s Home in Retsil, Washington.
Henry was one of eight sons born to my great-great-great grandparents. Six of them volunteered to fight for the Union Army. Theodore, John, and Henry were all taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh and sent to Libby Prison near Richmond, Virginia, a three-story brick warehouse on Tobacco Row where many died of starvation, disease, or shear misery.
Libby was a notoriously bad place to be imprisoned, and by 1863 housed nearly 1000 prisoners in appalling conditions. Several sources note that Libby was second only to Andersonville in the horrors visited upon its inmates.
Conditions were so bad that at the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln, while touring the facility, encountered a crowd of people who said they would tear it down in a show of remorse. “No,” Lincoln told them in disgust. “Leave it as a monument.”
Henry had enlisted in Company G, 12th Iowa Infantry, and left Decorah with his brothers and comrades on October 25, 1861. All 90 men of the company marched to the court-house that morning where they were “…entertained by patriotic speeches and songs. The Ladies Aid Society of the M.E. church presented each member with a pocket testament and a small pin-cushion. The men then rode in wagons to McGregor, Iowa, and then boarded a steamboat to Dubuque, where the rest of their regiment had already assembled.”
From Dubuque the 12th Iowa was sent to Benton Barracks, St. Louis, where seventy-five members of the regiment, including Henry’s Company Commander, were killed by measles, pneumonia, or typhoid. From St. Louis, in February of ’62, they joined General Grant for the attack on Fort Henry in western middle Tennessee, followed by the attack on Fort Donelson on the Kentucky border only a week later, which opened the Cumberland River for the invasion of the south.
Next, my great great grandfather Henry went on to fight at Shiloh, where on the battle’s first day (April 6, 1862), he fought in the advance until sundown, and along with his comrades in Company G, held back “…the enemy while other regiments withdrew to a new point and waited the arrival of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell. The regiment, together with the 8th and 14th Iowa Infantry Regiments, comprised four-fifths of that advance and surrendered only when surrounded by ten times their numbers.”
Henry and his brothers had been taken prisoner, but the war raged on, and his regiment went on to fight at the siege of Vicksburg, the Battle of Atlanta, and finally the Battle of Nashville. According to the Public Opinion, speaking of Henry and his brothers, “There perhaps was no other instance in the Civil War where six brothers enlisted and served faithfully until the end of the war.”
Henry mustered out in 1866. Of his brothers, only Charles’ death is attributed directly to the war. Having enlisted in 1861 with Co. A of the 1st Minnesota infantry at the age of 27, Charles “died in August 1877 from wounds received in battle which never healed.”
Henry Steen would survive to father Charles Edward Steen – it is hard to believe he wasn’t named after Henry’s deceased brother — who fathered my grandmother, Jean Lucille Steen, who was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, where she became high school sweethearts with my grandfather, Russell Rullman, and then made my father, Stephen Rullman, who met my mother, Christine Anderson, who made me.
The genealogy is fun but what matters most is the stories behind the names. And as I dug deeper into the bag I began uncovering a treasure trove of stories told and untold, some held like a hot stone in my palm, others running through my fingers like a handful of sand.
My great great-grandfather Henry’s son, Charles Steen, was a railroad man. A brakeman. Among the items in the bag is his original Northern Pacific Railway Company Rules and Regulations book, stamped # 18835, with an assortment of handwritten notes, and a letter from one Jas Shannon, Trainmaster, assuring Charles that he would not lose his train privileges due to a family illness. Who was sick, I have no idea, and it could easily have been Charles himself, as he became a notorious drinker and would, on occasion, disappear for days at a time on benders.
Elsewhere in the treasure bag there is an article about my grandmother, from the Omaha Bee-News in 1935, when she was bitten by a rabid dog on the way to school.
There is a handwritten letter, from June 13, 1877, written in Norwegian. It is accompanied by an English translation revealing that the author’s sister, Anna, has died of tuberculosis. Both the Norwegian letter and the English translation are written by my great-grandmother, Eugenie Steen, informing their mother of Anna’s untimely death.
There are postcards from various Norwegian towns where the ancient Steens are buried. There is a picture of Henry Steen on the porch of the Veteran’s Home in Washington. There is his Civil War service medal. There is a picture of Henry Steen and his son, Charles — father and son shaking hands in what can only be described as a rather rigid embrace. Charles is wearing a bow-tie.
There is a photo of my grandfather Russ in his Navy flight suit, grilling steaks over a makeshift bbq, somewhere in the Pacific. On the back he wrote: “What a way to fight a war.”
But chief among the many treasures from the bag was something I found in a small, unobtrusive blue box near the bottom. Nothing about the box clamored for attention so I had set it aside when first looking through the bag, thinking I would come back to it. And after an hour or so of reading various letters and clippings, straining for detail in old tintypes held up to the light, I finally returned to the box.
Inside the box I found a very old pocket watch, not working but in otherwise decent condition, and a letter folded into a tiny square underneath. The letter, addressed to my grandmother, is from a Francis Steen of Dodge Center, Minnesota, written in 1974. In the letter she explains that her grandfather, Martin, was a brother to my great great grandfather Henry. Martin, I learned elsewhere, enlisted in Co. E of the 38th Iowa Infantry in August, 1862. After mustering out of the war he worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a Mr. Folsom, who was father to President Grover Cleveland’s wife. (Which, if you are paying attention, lends some credence to the 6° of separation theory, because it sets President Grover Cleveland and me exactly six historical degrees apart. Which is a little bit funny.)
In the letter, handwritten, Francis explains to my grandmother that she has no healthy heirs upon whom to bequeath the watch, and that the watch was never really hers, or her father Martin’s, because it was actually carried by Henry Steen throughout the Civil War. There is no word on how she came to have it, but there is likewise no reason to doubt the authenticity of her claim. She graciously asks my grandmother if she would like to have the watch.
So that is what I found in the bag I had been neglecting out in the old green shed — a pocket watch carried by my great great grandfather in the Civil War. It is tempting to wonder how he managed to hang onto the watch when conditions in Libby might have tempted him to trade it for comforts, but he had his brothers with him, and I prefer to think that he kept it as a kind of Ace in the Hole. Perhaps, in those dark days when he was starving and the men around him were covered in lice, when disease flashed through the prison taking his friends and comrades by the hour, he held onto that watch as a source of humanity, and reason, and hope.
And then again, maybe not.
I will never know for certain, but the bonafides are solid. Time creates gaps and leaves questions that can never be answered. But where those facts cannot be properly addressed, where the abyss stares back, it is the storyteller’s job to take command.
And perhaps there will come a day when I will have my own grandchild who pesters me about family history, who wants to know about Barefoot Clarence, or The Conehead, or who demands to know who among us married who, who got divorced, who lived where, what they did, and why. Perhaps, and I sincerely hope it comes to pass, that child will call me late at night as I grow old, demanding to know who in the family ever lived in Wathena, Kansas, and what in the hell they were doing there.
Perhaps that inquisitive child, whose veins will run with the blood of Thron and Ingebord, of Henry and Charles, of Jean Lucille, might like to hear some evening about a little box I keep in the study, and the treasure that resides so perfectly, and quietly, inside.