Finding Sheldon Appleby

Sheldon Appleby signatureI 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 [1864], 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.

Sheldon Appleby FamilyThe 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.

12 Responses to Finding Sheldon Appleby

  1. Exciting! Reminds me that I *really* need to go through the published book of CW letters that’s sitting above my grandmother’s desk. Family history can be wonderfully interesting…or scary. 😉

  2. How exciting to discover you have a Civil War soldier ancestor! I’m looking forward to a report on what you find at the National Archives. You should at least be able to clear up the discrepancy in the dates of his discharge. For a good (and amply illustrated) account of his regiment’s service, I’d recommend that you track down a copy of “The Plymouth Pilgrims: A History of the Eighty-Fifth New York Infantry in the Civil War” by Wayne Mahood, edited by David G. Martin (Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 1989).

    1. Further research shows that Sheldon Applebys listing in the 1890 Federal Veterans Census lists his service in both the 85th NYSV and the 4th US Light Artillery. His service in the RA is listed as commencing Oct 24th 1862, the day following his discharge from the 85th NY. The listing shows he served until Oct 1 1864.

    2. Thanks, Kent. He started in the 85th and transferred to the 4th, which served as a light artillery unit. I pulled his records and will be sharing the story as I have the time to get it written up.

  3. Chris, I know that that there must have been a real thrill in making this discovery. Wayne Mahood, author of _The Plymouth Pilgrims_, lives in the Batavia area and is retired from Geneseo State College. Another book that will be useful to you is Lesley Gordon’s study of the 16th Connecticut, a regiment that was brigaded with the 85th at Plymouth. Both of them have made presentations before the Buffalo CWRT.

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