The Third Cup

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The story of Tom and Polly

Hi neighbors. In searching for my ancestors, I've come across some stories funny and tragic. Our predecessors had no less human lives than our own, with all the drama and comedy that entails.

One of the saddest stories was of a Civil War bride and groom. The tale is about my great-great-grandfather Thomas Jefferson Cooksey who married at age 19 to his childhood sweetheart, Mary "Polly" Hamby. Polly truly was the girl next door as the Cooksey and Hamby households, both bursting to the rafters with children, lived just down the lane from each other in rural Cedar County.

The families were so close that Tom's brother married one of Polly's sisters. That seemed to be the case quite often in those days.

Anyway, they married early in the year of 1862. By that fall, Tom and two of his brothers, joined the 6th Regiment of Missouri Volunteers. Tom was in Company "L" and as far as I can tell, this was a cavalry group.

He joined in November to serve three years. By December he was in the horrible battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas with at least one of his brothers, George.

The Historical Society of Prairie Grove has a lengthy report of this battle online. Here is a part of that report depicting the battlefield after the fierce battle the day before: "Daylight brought the horrors of war to reality. The cheers of victory by the Union army quickly died. The land was covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. While the Federal troops attended to their own, the Confederates lay in rows where they had fallen. General Hindman's flight left the responsibility of his wounded and dead to others. The smell of burning flesh left a stench in the air, and pieces of bodies -- heads, arms, and innards -- were said to have been eaten by packs of wild hogs.

"Many work parties labored to get the wounded to field hospitals, where supplies were becoming scarce. Prairie Grove Church and surrounding buildings were made into hospitals. The Federal wounded were treated in makeshift hospitals on the battlefield until they could be carried to Fayetteville. Whether they were friends or foes, the people of Prairie Grove saw they all were cared for. Many wounded died, but they bore their sufferings like heroes. Casualties were heavy on both sides. Federal loses -- 175 killed, 813 wounded, 263 missing -- totaled 1,257." Although the fighting was fierce, the worse toll on the troops was disease and the dreaded plague of measles.

One man who was fought beside Tom's brother John, wrote in a disposition in an appeal for a pension from John's father: "We both fought at the Battle of Wilson Creek. John (Tom's brother who enlisted the same time he did) fought well with the highest fever I ever knew a man could have. He died near Rolla and I buried him there." Tom suffered the same sickness in Arkansas and also died of high fever, perhaps from measles or pneumonia. One source said two to three hundred men died of illness caused fever unrelated to battle injuries in the Battle of Prairie Grove.

Both brothers survived two of the Civil War's most horrible battles with the human enemy only to fall within days to disease.

That was not uncommon during the Civil War though when supplies were often scarce and food and clothing were hard to come by.

Back home, Polly stayed with her family and awaited news of her husband and his two brothers. Unfortunately, in the middle of December 1862, eleven months after their marriage, her brother-in-law George, brought home the body of her dead young husband.

Shortly after that, she gave birth to their only child, my great grandmother, Mary Tom Cooksey.

Census records indicate that little Mary Tom still lived with her grandparents when she was seven years old. Her mother eventually remarried to a Dr. Belt and moved to Wichita, Kansas. I'm not able to verify it yet, but this may be the same Dr. Belt who may have later moved back to Cedar County in time to deliver some of the next generation of my ancestors.

Although the story had a more or less happy ending, I've tried to imagine what young Polly's feelings were as she watched the horizon each day for the return of her husband from the war while his child grew within her. I can't help but think that even after her marriage to Dr. Belt, perhaps her mind would occasionally try to construct the world that would have been without war and disease. The dead keep some secrets, even from prying genealogists.