The case of the phony letter

When wondering here whether soldiers' letters were being fabricated, I got an answer from Tim Reese. He had written about such an episode in a project called A Witch Came Knocking, a collection of pieces organized around the Blair Witch tourism torrent unleashed on his home in Burkittsville some years back. This excerpt runs long but is a great read - except for my blog-centric reparagraphing, it's all Tim's. Put up your feet, light up a Lucky and enjoy. (Note: I have excised one name that appears in the original ms.)

I recalled that the 1980 reenactment, in which I took part, was briefly delayed at its start because a ceremony was taking place within the [Burkittsville] Reformed church. As we idled in column on Main Street outside the church, an inquiry to one of our officers revealed that an original letter was being formally returned to descendants of the Confederate soldier who had written it while being treated for wounds here in town after the battle. We thought no more of it, the ceremony concluded, and we got on with our bang-bang to the delight of spectators who nearly engulfed the town.

In those days virtually everyone who came to town seeking historical wisdom was directed to Burkittsville’s unofficial historian and folklorist, the Rev. H A C, beloved pastor of Pleasant View Church of the Brethren outside town to the north side. C lived in Pleasant View’s rectory on West Main Street and was always amenable to fielding inquiries. I too was directed his way when I arrived.

Here I should mention that I also found that the local heritage society had fallen to moth balls in recent years and, with a handful of other sympathizers, made a naive and vain attempt to revitalize it as its last president before its name was changed, not realizing that the organization had always pursued social rather than academic activities.

My year of stewardship at least gave me access to the society’s rather disheveled files which furnished a fair record of all that had preceded me. Therein I found an old newspaper article descriptive of the presentation that had held up the 1980 parade. My mouth began to water. Here was a genuine vestige of the battle found in the town itself. Its text might very well shed light suitable for illuminating my [forthcoming book]. Unfortunately, my quest coincided with Reverend C’s relocation, after back surgery, to his daughter’s home not far away.

I was however twice able to telephone him to make inquiry. He was a delight to chat with, though getting a word in edgewise was difficult. A more bubbly, affable fellow you cannot imagine. His head seemed crammed to capacity with tidbits on houses, roads, battles, churches, grave sites, and you name it. Others informed me that his accumulated historical notes were legendary. Frankly I was overwhelmed at first.

In the society’s files was a copy of the news clipping heralding the famous letter’s “amazing discovery” including a complete verbatim transcript. After reading it my bubble burst.

The events and chronology described therein defied well-documented facets of the campaign, so I began to get suspicious—I'm only human. Following careful dissection I was alarmed to discover that the thing was a patent fraud, and so set out to publish an article picking it factually apart for the sake of those who trusted its authenticity. I assumed that Reverend C had been duped.

Sometime later I bumped into an old acquaintance, who just happened to be the de facto state historian, and asked him what he knew of the letter. He had seen my article and humorously related his reaction after reading it, he having gone so far as to show a photocopy of the letter to a mutual colleague at the U.S. National Archives who roared with laughter at first sight of such an amateurish fraud. It seemed this was old news.

Still, I had a mystery on my hands. Who had penned it and why? Would anyone accept my rebuttal so long after the letter’s appearance? And who in the historical community had fallen for it and then cited it in what context?

Some answers came sooner than others. I found that the hoax had appeared in at least three otherwise scholarly publications, and was told of still more I have never tracked down. Reaction to my article was subdued and at times belligerent. Many continued to believe that the letter had merit. Clearly I had unwittingly poked a stick into a hornets’ nest.

After a few dead ends I returned to the newspaper article to see to whom the letter had been returned and where they might be located. They were pictured receiving it in the church from Reverend C and were named as Mr. and Mrs. James Story of Georgia with their son, namesake of the deceased soldier. After telephoning nearly everyone in that state by the name of James Story, I connected with what turned out to be a relative who impatiently informed me that I was looking in the wrong state! Jim had long before moved to Charles County, Maryland (!), commuting to work in Washington.

From there it was a simple matter to contact him and arrange another visit to Burkittsville to discuss family history. He seemed eager to again visit Burkittsville and talk about it. What Jim revealed to me here in town was nothing less than stunning, and must be narrated in careful though elaborate context.

The letter, found by Reverend C in the back of an old hymnal at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, recounts a Virginia cavalryman’s sojourn with a special detail, assigned to escort Gen. Robert E. Lee in an ambulance, to General Longstreet’s headquarters near Hagerstown due to both Lee’s hands having been injured at the battle of Chantilly, Virginia during a thunderstorm in which his faithful war-horse “Traveler” had shied at a thunderbolt while Lee still held the reins, a widely-known and documented occurrence.

He also tells of the destruction of Horsey’s distillery after Rebel troops ran amuck freely availing themselves, the incident prompting Gen. Lafayette McLaws to have it burned, held up as the ostensible cause of Confederate defeat at Crampton’s Gap.

This Virginian, signed as Benjamin Prather, somehow got mixed up in the battle here above town and was wounded in both right knee and hip. Brought down the mountain as a prisoner of war, he writes of prolonged treatment in St. Paul’s where he delights to record personally chatting with President Abraham Lincoln who visited the two churches to see the wounded during his four-day October tour of the battlefields to confer with General McClellan, also well-documented.

Prather succumbed to his wounds; the letter was never sent, hence its discovery. By fantastic coincidence, the soldier’s personal prayer book had also been discovered at St. Paul’s by Reverend C.

Before meeting Jim Story it was relatively easy to establish that Lee did not part company with Longstreet’s command as it marched to Frederick and beyond. Laying all this out in front of Jim Story very quickly became unnecessary.

Several years before the letter’s discovery Jim found time to consult his ancestor’s service records at the Archives while working in Washington. From these he learned of the soldier’s death in Burkittsville and one day ventured here to attempt finding the places where he had fought and died, perhaps even his place of burial, a pilgrimage common to folks with ancestors in that war. He too was directed to Reverend C who, try as he might, was unable to point out the exact location. However, C showed Jim the Prather-identified prayer book from St. Paul’s which was proof enough. Though Jim was allowed to reverently hold and thumb through the book, C was not about to part with it, descendant or not.

Reverend C occasionally corresponded with Jim for years, most notably when the “amazing” letter surfaced—after Jim’s visit. C also repeatedly insisted that the town’s name was correctly spelled and pronounced “Birkettsville,” accent on the second syllable, a habit he lured other residents into espousing (Are you spinning, [C]?).

Jim was then invited by C to attend dedication of a new monument at the town residence of former Governor and Mrs. Endicott Peabody in 1978, using the occasion to again pay homage to his lost ancestor and his comrades by saying a few words, all the while praying he could pry the prayer book from C’s grasp, without success.

Through persistent postal badgering by the family, added to insistent entreaties by Governor Peabody, C finally relented and agreed to return the prayer book. In time a ceremony was arranged to coincide with the 1980 reenactment at which the prayer book and letter, now attributed to the “Reverend Colonel Prather,” would at long last be delivered to the next of kin: Jim and Carolyn Story, and their son, Benjamin Felton Story, his first name given to perpetuate Prather’s memory. The story made the front page of the Brunswick Citizen. Jim’s heart sank when he got home, calmly compared the ancient epistle to C’s letters, and found that the handwriting matched.

When I had regained my composure I asked the obvious final question. How could he have gone through with the church charade, then kept his mouth shut about such a hurtful desecration of his great-grandfather’s memory? Here it behooves me to say, possibly to Jim’s embarrassment, that he is a quiet, dignified, god-fearing gentleman of the first order not given to histrionics. In replying he calmly stated that the prayer book and letter had become an inseparable pair, making Jim’s attendance mandatory to retrieve the former. He kept quiet about the farce to all but family members because he had concluded that no one was really interested in an obscure soldier who died in an obscure town, victim of an obscure battle. Like it or not, I had my answer.

For the record, Pvt. Benjamin Franklin Prather, Company K, 16th Georgia Infantry, a devout young man preparing for the ministry when distracted by war, was indeed wounded in the hip only, and died of acute dysentery 9 October, 1862, somewhere in Burkittsville. He likely lies buried with his comrades in unmarked graves at Washington Confederate Cemetery, Hagerstown, in dignified quietude where no one can again hurt him. The miraculous prayer book is in fact authentic, stumbled across by C and strongly indicative that Private Prather was indeed treated at the Lutheran church. So Jim’s original quest was in fact well-aimed and fulfilled despite prolonged, insensitive jerking around. The prayer book could only be reclaimed in tandem with the bogus “letter,” both of which remain in Jim’s possession where they rightly belong, he being the only living soul who truly understands both.

Now it was my turn to keep quiet. Keep in mind that it never has been, and still isn't, my intention to defame a man of the cloth. Nor was it my purpose to play investigative journalist, looking for someone to pillory. I merely had a book to write. Curiosity however demanded the truth now matter how upsetting or difficult to uncover it may have been. Continued research would reveal still more disappointment.