The Beauty and Mystery of Memorial Day

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.

Surrender at Island #10
Surrender at Island #10. Originally from http://civilwardailygazette.com/buell-and-grant-surprise-the-rebels-at-shiloh-island-no-10-falls/

 

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.

Our Truly American Roots

While I haven’t traced every ancestor back to “before they were here”, every single immigrant that I have found came to this country prior to 1776. They came from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. They came here, made a life, made a family, and made a great nation.

The migration patterns are pretty interesting as well. My mom’s family (Chamberlain and Brenholts) came into New England and worked their way to Texas via the Northern route, living in the cities.

My dad’s family (Price and Riffle) came into the Southern colonies and worked their way to Texas via the South, living in small towns and on farms.

The lives and labors of each branch supported the other.

I have discovered that my family history is this nation’s history, they are inseparable. And THAT makes me proud, grateful, and humbled, and motivated to continue the quest – to find out more about those folks from the past, to learn of their struggles and achivements, to connect with their descendants, and to learn what kind of legacy we are creating in their honor.

My genealogy research ended up not being a search for my Irish Roots, or German Roots, but truly American Roots.

Coincidence – God winked at Samuel Scott Riffle

Coincidence – a wink from God letting you know you’re headed in the right direction.

There’s a great story of coincidence in our very own family.

Samuel Scott Riffle, known to most (even his wife) as Mr. Riffle, had the kind of tough upbringing that was sadly quite common in the South after the Civil War.

To recap:

His father died in the war before he was 7 years old. His mom remarried, had a daughter, we’re hoping that life was good for them all at this point, though they were in Mississippi and the war and reconstruction were really tough on folks in this area. His mom got pregnant again, Mr. Riffle was in his early teens at this point.

SS Riffle’s stepfather (Mr. Murphy) died in an accident coming home from town, leaving Amanda, his pregnant widow, Josephine, his 5 year old daughter, and SS Riffle, his 13 year old stepson, to fend for themselves.

Mr. Riffle had either already gone off to work somewhere, or he did so after his stepfather died, we don’t know. All we do know is that he was, at the young age of 13 or 14 not at home with his mother when she had the baby. The baby, a boy, was either stillborn or died shortly thereafter. Amanda apparently lived for a short time, a week, a few months, we don’t know, but then she died as well.

Mr. Riffle couldn’t get across the Mississippi river to get home immediately (flooding season apparently), and by the time he did get home, his mom was buried, and his sister Josephine was gone to live with other family. We aren’t sure if he even knew where she was. He was completely on his own, it was 1870 and he was only 15.

He survived, thrived actually. Became a successful farmer, a father many times over, and eventually ended up in the great state of Texas.

But there must have been, always at the back of his mind, a desire to find his sister. To know if she had turned out ok, to find his own connections to his past.

Flash forward to 1897.

Mr. Riffle’s first wife, Sarah Josephine Faucett, is pregnant with her 9th child.  He’s an overseer at a cotton plantation in Central Texas.

Mr. Riffle and his father-in-law, Anderson Newt Faucett, travelled together to Nashville Tennessee to the 7th Nationl United Confederate Veterans Reunion. They were hoping to find SS Riffle’s half sister, Josephine Murphy.

Another gentleman, Bartholomew Roach, had gone to this reunion on behalf of his wife, Josephine Murphy, to find her brother. Bat Roach asked a nearby gentleman if he knew Samuel Scott Riffle. The gentleman he asked was Andy Newt Faucett. God winked.

After that, the Roach and Riffle families stayed in touch. There was even a time that the Riffles stayed with the Roaches while their house was being built. Must have been a bit crowded – 7 Riffle children, 12 Roach children, 4 adults, and all the assorted farm animals.

Over the years we’ve lost touch with the Roach side of the family, perhaps we can reunite again someday. The facts remain however –

Terrible tragedy, extreme hardship, loss of family – survival and success in spite of it. As a descendant of this great man, I hope I can live up to his example.

Personally, I find so much inspiration in the story of Samuel Scott Riffle, he’s definitely one of the “dead ancestors” I’d love to meet.

Please share your stories!