So many of my fellow Americans have honored Memorial Day by telling the tales of their relatives’ heroism, honor, and sacrifice. They are lovely and great stories, inspiring us all to be better, to do more, to be worthy.
I’d like to tell a different kind of story about a soldier lost to war.
What we now call Memorial Day has origins in the post-Civil War era. As the nation stitched itself back together, survivors decorated the graves of those they had lost to that horror.
My family tree has one man lost to that war. He is the only soldier KIA in my direct lineage (to my knowledge). His story is mostly unknown and seems emblematic of this nation of dreamers and strivers who have fashioned this greatest nation on God’s green earth.
M.D.L. Trebbell got married in NE Mississippi, joined the Army in Tennessee, died a Private in the Confederate Army. He left behind a wife and young son. That’s pretty much all I know from the available documentation.
He was probably in his early 30s when he died, though even that is conjecture. In my family, we know him as Lafayette. The MDL seems to stand for Marquise de Lafayette. His parents, in naming their son, chose to honor the great French General who was key to our nation’s founding.
Was it just a family name of several generations’ standing? Did they have some connection to the man via ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and wished to honor him? I don’t know, but the name speaks to the patriotism of my ancestors, and to their identification with the warrior class.
Lafayette got married in 1853 in Itawamba County, Mississippi. This place, in the NE corner of Mississippi was newly settled, Lafayette’s parents would likely have been pioneers. According to itawambahistory.org: “Most of the early settlers in Itawamba County were from the hill regions of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. These people were from places were slavery was practically non-existent. Consequently few slaves were in Itawamba County.”
Lafayette and Amanda had a farm somewhere in the area, and in 1855 they had a son. When war broke out in 1861, it seems Lafayette resisted the urge to go.
He did, however, enlist with the Confederate Army at Fort Pillow Tennessee on 11 Feb 1862. Less than two months later, on 8 Apr 1862 his unit was captured in the battle at Island #10 near New Madrid, Missouri. One day later, he was dead.
He served for less than two months, he could barely be considered a soldier. Still, he gave his life for his family, his home, his state, and his country. I honor his sacrifice. I honor his legacy.
Was he a good man? A good husband? A cheat and a tyrant? I don’t know.
Was he reluctant to sign up? Eager to get away from his farm, family, and child? I don’t know.
Was he a brave solder? A coward? I don’t know.
What I do know is a bit of the story of his son, Samuel Scott. SS was left fatherless at the age of six. His mother remarried and had a daughter. When SS was 14 his stepfather died, so SS had to leave his 4 year old half-sister and his pregnant mother to go earn money in post-war Mississippi or Louisiana (it’s not quite clear).
His mother died in childbirth, as did the baby, while SS was away. The 4 year old half-sister was taken off to live with other family. So in 1870, at the age of 14, SS was on his own in the reconstruction era South, and didn’t even know where his sister was.
It wouldn’t be until 1897, at a Reunion for Confederate Veterans in Nashville Tennessee that SS Riffle would find his half-sister Josephine Murphy.
Riffle? Wait. I thought the soldier’s name was MDL Trebbell!
Well, the military index shows Trebbell, the marriage index shows Tribble. Literacy and spelling were in flux in those days. At some point SS learned to read and write and would have had to put his name on paper. He’d heard his father called Lafayette Trebbell. His own name was Samuel Scott Tribble. At some point it was heard and written as Samuel Scott Riffle – and the Riffle family was born.
My grandmother was Katie Riffle, her father was SS Riffle, we always “knew” his father was Lafayette Riffle, died in a Yankee Prison Camp. The truth is a shade different, but just a shade.
Marquis de Lafayette Trebbell, Private, Company D, 40th Regiment, 5th Confederate Infantry, died at Island #10 9 Apr 1862.
Today, hundreds of Riffle descendants owe their existence to this man, this unsung, largely unknown casualty of war.
There were 5000 men captured at Island #10. The far deadlier Battle of Shiloh was going on at the same time. How many other nearly anonymous men died the same day as my great-great-Grandfather? How many nearly anonymous soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have died through the years?
We remember and honor all our war casualties today. Some have brave stories of heroism. Others, like my ancestor, exist only as a name and a few dates, and sometimes the name isn’t even right!
Memorial Day is the day we celebrate and express gratitude for all of it – the beauty, the mysteries, the mistakes, the coincidences. We honor it all, because we are made of it all.