ELKHART — It started with one old letter.
John Weaver was a kid when his grandmother, Nellie Wilder Hosack, read him a letter from the Civil War sent to his great-great grandmother.
Nellie considered John a worthy candidate to be his generation’s family historian.
Decades later, John took about 50 letters — half of them one-way correspondence to his great-great grandmother, Harriet “Hal” Hirst, from soldier and her then-fiance, Frank Whitlock, plus her first communication with his great-great grandfather, Josiah Warren Wilder, and others — and put them in a book.
“Lost and Found: Letters From the Civil War” was self-published in 2012 through Evangel Press in Nappanee (Weaver’s self-published book on World War I-era journals kept by his grandmother and great grandmother, Mae Wilder, “Through Grandma’s Eyes” came out in 2010).
“Nobody else in my family ever remembers that (Civil War) letter being read,” says Weaver, a 70-year-old retired social studies teacher who still serves as a part-time wrestling coach. “I was meant (to produce a book). It just took me awhile to start.”
Whitlock, serving with the Pennsylvania First Volunteers, died of illness in a field hospital along the James River in Virginia following the Seven Days Battles in 1862, but not before sending several letters to Hal in and around Wilmington, Del.
So they would not be seen by other eyes, Whitlock claimed he burned Hal’s letters to him.
Weaver, who was born in Elkhart in 1942, painstakingly went through the regimental records to establish that the letters sent by Whitlock came from places they say they did.
The tone of the letters transformed with time.
“He thinks it’s going to be a short and glorious (fight),” says Weaver of early dispatches. “You can see him change as the war wears on. He switches from ‘when I get home’ to ‘if I get home.’”
Whitlock never made it home alive.
Weaver learned through the letters that Frank bought Hal a ring. Its whereabouts are unknown.
“I do have her pocket watch,” says Weaver.
Although Weaver does not know when Hal and Josiah Wilder (known as Warren) met and married, he did learn that he was from Ottawa Lake, Mich., and wound up in LaPorte. Warren joined the 48th Indiana Infantry Regiment and later was involved the Vicksburg, Miss., campaign.
Warren was injured in the Battle of Raymond in 1863, and kept his leg — thanks in no small part to being the first wounded and operated on with a clean instrument. He became a prisoner of war and was later freed and sent upriver to spend time in a St. Louis hospital.
“I learned a lot,” says Weaver of the book writing and research process. “I still have a lot of unanswered questions.”
He may also have another book in him.
Weaver, who wrote a novel about coaching the 1980s that was never published, has an idea of relating more tales from his “very unusual family” as he remembers them.
Learn more about Weaver’s work online at www.storiesretold.com/weaver/