I know Sheldon and Mary Appleby only through their handwriting and by their daughter, Nell—my great-great-grandmother, “Grandma Nellie,” whom I know, in turn, only by name. The handwriting I know Sheldon by isn’t even his own—not really, anyway. Rather, it’s a photocopy of a photocopy (perhaps of a photocopy). That’s how tenuous my connection is to Sheldon and Mary, my great-great-great grandparents.
Shelton served in the 85th N.Y. Volunteers, but until last spring, I never even knew he existed. A great aunt on my mother’s side—the last surviving member of her generation in my family—sent to me a letter Sheldon had written from Suffolk, Virginia, on February 6, 1863, to his parents.
“I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines and let you know that I am well,” he assures them in a hand loopier and less spidery than much of the handwriting of the period. After a couple pages of chitchat, he signs off cheerily: “I hain’t got time to read this over and you must excuse the mistakes as usual.”
A copy and transcript of Sheldon’s letter had been sent to my great aunt from a distant cousin in Cincinnati. “I used to tell our kids they were Irish, German, and Appleby because we didn’t know much about the Applebys,” someone appended to the bottom of a note enclosed with the letter. My aunt affirmed it in a note to me: “We never knew much about the Applebys.”
Meanwhile, a note scribbled by someone on the bottom of the transcript says “Much of the 8th was captured at the battle of I think Plymouth, NC. I believe they were imprisoned at Andersonville. Have heard that SS Appleby was one of them but am not sure.” There appears to be one more line of the note, but the photocopier has cut it off.
Indeed, the 85th did get captured at Plymouth, where, according to the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, “in April , it was obliged to surrender to a superior force of the enemy, almost the entire regiment being captured. As a result of this disaster the loss of life in Southern prisons was appalling—222 deaths during imprisonment being reported.”
I had this in mind when I visited Andersonville in May of 2015. My great aunt had sent Shelton’s info to me just days before the trip, so I had no time to investigate anything. It left me a pretty open-ended opportunity for reflection.
The final item in the packet of materials from my great aunt was a photocopy of a photo of Sheldon and Mary, dated circa 1905. In the photo, the couple sits in the front row surrounded by family members identified only by their first names. In the back, second from the left, stands Grandma Nellie—the only one besides Sheldon and Mary identified by anything more than her first name. Someone has I.D.ed her as “Nell Cawley,” her married name, passed down through my family tree to my mother, where it was lost on that branch to marriage and a pair of boys named into their father’s family. Many Cawleys still exist, though, plus many, many more cousins with names beyond.
Nellie’s son, Mark, was my great-grandfather. He saw me come into the world, and as my mother tells me, it was the first time he smiled since my great-grandmother, Mary, had passed away a few years before. Mark lived on for another six months or so after my birth before succumbing to what family members still swear was heartbreak.
Mark’s oldest child, James, was my maternal grandfather, a man I adored deeply. Mark’s youngest daughter, the fifth of six kids—my Aunt Mary Alice—is the great aunt who sent me Sheldon’s materials.
Since those materials arrived, Sheldon has sat with me, trying to draw me into deeper conversation. A quick on-line search of the roster of the 85th New York gave me a tad more info:
APPLEBY , SHELDO N S.—Age, 18 years. Enlisted, September 9, 1861, at Richburg, to serve three years; mustered in as private, Co. I, September 20,1861; discharged, October 23, 1862.
Wait a sec. . . . Discharged October 23, 1862? His letter was dated February 6, 1863, sent from Suffolk, VA. And the battle of Plymouth didn’t happen until April 17-20, 1864. So what was this October discharge?
While I’d learned a little more about Sheldon, I found an even bigger question mark.
I decided to visit the National Archives and see what I could find about him, but my regular commute between Virginia and western New York during the school year and my ECW workload on top of that ended up prohibiting me from making the trip.
Until this week.
My wife has a catering conference to attend in the capital, and I’ve decided to tag along. While she attends workshops and seminars and food tastings, I’m marching six blocks directly down 9th Street to the National Archives.
Let’s see what Uncle Sam has to tell me about Sheldon Appleby.