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Ancestor's diary fuels interest

January 25, 2005 1:09 am

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Pat Barker of Stafford inherited a copy of Matthew Jack Davis' diary from a relative in 1988, but only recently rediscovered it. Davis, who served in a Mississippi regiment during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, writes of that brutal winter.

WHEN PAT Barker was given the diary 16 years ago by an aunt, the Stafford County woman was excited about getting it.

After all, it contained the 144-year-old words of a relative, Matthew J. Davis, recounting his experiences as a Confederate corporal in the Civil War.

But with a family to care for and a preschool operated in the basement of her Ferry Farms home, Barker didn't have spare time to peruse the pages. The diary got filed away.

But a few years ago--with her children now grown and the books closed on her preschool--Barker rediscovered the diary.

Taking out the collection of hand-typed pages, taken from the original ledger book Davis filled by hand, Barker was entranced.

As someone who'd always enjoyed history, she found this tale of the soldier in the 19th Regiment of Mississippi unexpectedly moving.

Especially when she turned certain pages to find out that this relative of hers trod ground so familiar to her in and around Fredericksburg.

"I found myself going to the battlefields where this ancestor of mine had been," said Barker, whose ties to Davis reach back through the Deere family she was born into in Oklahoma. "There's a special peace I feel in those spots now, a special atmosphere when I walk those grounds."

Reading through the diary, which Barker was nice enough to share with me, it's not hard to see why she's been intrigued by it.

Soon after arriving in Fredericksburg in November of 1862, Davis--whose prose is a colorful mix of battle details and snippets of a soldier's life--tells a humorous fish tale while camped along what he calls "Maries Heights."

After procuring two nice fish, Davis explains that he and a fellow soldier presented them to an officer in their unit.

But the next morning, the officer--camped near Davis and others in the unit--is surprised to see them feasting on two fish that look suspiciously familiar.

"Colonel, did you never read of the miracle of the loaves and fishes?" Davis quoted himself saying. "The Colonel laughed, so we escaped punishment."

The humor is set against grim battle details when Davis writes about the carnage that took place beneath the stone wall where he and other Confederates readied for battle on Marye's Heights.

"The enemy charged several times to within several feet of the stone fence, but was repulsed with fearful loss," wrote Davis.

He added, "About 2 o'clock that evening, Col. Mullins was struck across the small of the back by a cannon ball, and was almost cut in two. The poor fellow was in five feet of me when struck He was both brave and noble and greatly loved by his men."

In other sections of his diary, Davis talks about camping out in the shelled remains of a house in Fredericksburg, about feasting on the "fattest hog in Virginia" shot in a campsite outside the city and, after taking part in action at Chancellorsville, of watching "the burning of the Chancellor's House which had been set on fire by bursting shells."

He also mentions "the night I was on the picket line all night, and was not far from Gen. [Thomas J "Stonewall"] Jackson when he was fired upon and killed by our own pickets thro mistake."

Barker said she's read through his writings several times, including a section detailing Davis' capture in fighting not far from Spotsylvania Courthouse, and another detailing how he was placed on a steamer in a "spot called "Bell Plains" and taken to a Union prison at "Fort Delaware."

Barker notes that about a year ago, she was so moved by reading the diary that she was drawn to Chatham.

"It was cold and snowing, but I felt the need to be there," she said. "Looking across the river at Fredericksburg, I was moved to snap a picture of the city there."

Barker, who had taken up photography both as a hobby and a side business years earlier, was rewarded with a landscape photo of Fredericksburg that's been a big seller for her.

She notes that it isn't all that different from the view Davis would have seen so long ago.

That's a connection she's both proud of and, in ways she doesn't always understand, driven to explore.

To reach ROB HEDELT: 540/374-5415 rhedelt@freelancestar.com





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