“Men dropped like leaves of autumn…The ground was being literally covered with the wounded, the dying, the dead.”
So reads part of the account of a reporter for a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper depicting the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 during the Civil War. The Wilderness, which was the first major engagement between Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a series of battles spanning months collectively known as the Overland Campaign, is recognized as one of the bloodiest battles – and the campaign likewise as one of the most gruesome and horrible events – of the entire war as Grant departed from previous Union strategy of engagement then withdrawal and chose to relentlessly pursue Lee’s army over and over in order to grind it to dust.
When it was over, there were more than 85,000 combined casualties – and half of Lee’s army – between the two months of May and June 1864.
My great-great grandfather, John Stinard Secord, was a 20-year-old private with the 6th New York Heavy Artillery and fought with Grant’s army throughout the campaign.
I spent part of my vacation this Summer retracing the battlefields the 6th New York fought on, going as far into the historical detail as to determine where on the fields my grandfather’s regiment would’ve been located. I have a sensitive spirit when it comes to feeling the weight of the spiritual and historical dimensions in the environment, so part of me feels connected to the faint echoes of events long past but nonetheless eternally extant within the fabric of spacetime when I’m present in a place.
The past is never truly gone, and not just in a temporal sense: as the emerging science of epigenetics is showing, the expression of our genes is altered by our life experiences in ways that are passed down to our children. So in a very real way, the impact of traumatic events not only affects us who live through them but also each generation that comes after us. To better understand myself and my family members and what makes us the kinds of people we are means knowing my ancestors. It’s also the best way to intentionally go about healing generational wounds so that the pain and trauma stop rippling through the centuries.
What my great-great grandfather experienced on those horrific battlefields is, in some way, felt within not only my genes but those of my mother, my brother, my nieces, my daughter. We’re impacted by the events at the Battle of the Wilderness; Spotsylvania Courthouse; Harris Farm, where my grandfather was battlefield promoted to corporal and wounded in his right ankle; the siege of Cold Harbor. We’re affected by what happened immediately after the war, too: by his first marriage at age 22 and the death of his wife within a year; by his second marriage three years later, followed by the death of his second wife two years after that. It’s not until my great-grandfather, Guy, is born by his third wife in 1873 that John Secord’s life stops having a direct genetic effect on my own. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in the environmental formation of my great-grandfather, so his shadow continues to influence the family until his death at age 49 from a liver disease, when Guy was 18. I don’t know for certain, but given the little I know of John’s life story, I’d venture the disease was alcohol related.
It wasn’t recognized by that name at the time, but depression and anxiety haunted the descendants of John Secord. Guy would leave New York, the home of the Secords for nearly 300 years, for Jacksonville with my great-grandmother in 1904 for reasons unknown, but he immediately opened a bowling and billiard parlor. His family was fairly well off financially, but he would eventually kill himself in 1935 at age 62, purportedly because he was going blind and feared being unable to provide for his wife (she collected on his life insurance in the days before suicide voided policies) – whether there were additional reasons (though taking the drastic step of ending your own life strongly implies there likely were) remains unknown.
My grandfather, Guy Jr., is largely an enigma. He was an accountant who, as best as I can tell from stories my mom has passed down from my grandmother, Violett, suffered from pretty severe depression and bouts of panic and anxiety similar to my own. He and my grandmother were deeply in love, but as the story goes, Guy would have episodes where he wouldn’t talk to Violett for days on end. She didn’t know what was wrong or what to do in these situations, and it bothered her to the point that her confidante – my great-aunt, Bernice – eventually in exasperation encouraged her to leave him. She did, when my mom was two-years-old, and despite remarrying twice, regretted the decision for the rest of her life.
For Guy’s part, he basically abandoned my mom. While she was an infant, he doted on her and by all accounts loved her deeply. But after Violett left, my mom only saw him a handful of times. Both he and Violett married others soon after their divorce (and the timing of the subsequent relationships leaves room to wonder whether those, too, played a part in their initial separation), and without wishing to intentionally speak ill of the deceased with which I have no personal knowledge, the impression is his new wife was rather controlling and feared he and Violett would get back together (which they nearly did in 1945 or 1946 before Violett’s new husband learned of the plans and threatened her and my mom’s life if they ever left – thankfully he actually left them when he met another woman years later). That surely played at least some part in the limited interactions he would have with my mom, but to what extent is unknown.
The most extensive interaction my mom had with him was a series of letters they exchanged briefly when she was an adolescent until he sent her a final letter stating that he would no longer be writing her. As the story goes, seeing and interacting with my mom was too painful for him. That was the last my mom heard or saw of him. He and his wife were at my mom and dad’s wedding in 1959, but they slipped out before my mom could see them. Guy died of a heart attack in 1965 at age 62, four years before my brother was born and 16 years before me.
Most of my life, I’ve thought of my grandfather as a coward. Though not solely to blame for the failed relationship with my grandmother, ultimately the onus is on him alone for neglecting my mom. No matter the complications with Violett or with his new wife, he had an obligation as a father to my mom that he failed. While I still maintain the basic essence of that sentiment, I’ve recently begun to soften my stance somewhat as I’ve compared his situation with my own.
Guy of course lived in an era when depression and anxiety largely went unrecognized and undiagnosed, and therapy and medication to assist with either was virtually unheard of. I don’t know for certain that he suffered from both, but judging from the lives of his grandfather, father, and descriptions of his own experience when coupled with my own, it’s probably fairly safe to say he did. I know what it’s like to feel debilitating hopelessness and panic, and it’s difficult for me to imagine what kind of person I’d be without the advantages of modern therapy and medicine. Perhaps I’d be a whole lot more like him.
I, too, of course have a daughter with a woman from a failed relationship, and from the beginning I’ve found it nearly impossible to imagine not being a part of my child’s life, which led me to judge Guy even more harshly. But all along I’ve had benefits and support he didn’t enjoy. That’s not to excuse his actions at all because, even still, he was responsible for my mom. But I know what it’s like to have panic and despair cloud your mind to the point you question your sanity and the worth of your existence, and I know what it’s like to be triggered by particular people and places to the extent that you avoid them as best you can for the sake of making it one more day at a time. And so I’ve found myself experiencing new emotions in regard to my grandfather: empathy, sadness, and regret.
Each of us is responsible for our own actions, but the kinds of people we are aren’t formed in a vacuum. My battle with depression isn’t solely a result of this one branch of my family – I come by it pretty honestly across multiple lines from both my mom and dad. And it’s also informed by my own life experiences. But in getting the fullest picture possible of why I am the way I am, I also better understand why my daughter is the person she is, and my mom, dad, brother, and nieces are who they are. It guides me in ways to help heal the wounds the family has collected for hundreds of years so that they don’t continue to plague us indefinitely generation after generation.
So I remember John Stinard Secord and the horrors he confronted over several months on the battlefield in 1864 in one of our nation’s bouts of collective insanity called the Civil War. I remember the two wives he lost in his 20s, and I try to empathize with the man he must have become as a result, dying likely of alcohol abuse in his 40s. I remember Guy Sr. and his dream of running his own business, which died in the 1910s as out of necessity he became a manager for someone else after his businesses failed. I remember the despair he must have felt over losing his sight, despair that contributed to his decision to take his own life. And I remember Guy Jr. and his likely struggles with depression and anxiety. I remember a man who I sense was in many ways a kindred spirit, a man I might have been even more like had my circumstances been slightly different. May they all rest in peace and, if they are indeed aware at all in the Life to Come of the continued events of life on earth, find some solace in knowing that at least some of their descendants seek to heal their wounds and bring shalom to the trauma and broken places of their lives within the lives that continue to flow from their own.