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A Decoration Day Story

originally published 30 May 2017 at Great Lakes Bioregionalism

My research into the Great Black Swamp region of Northwest Ohio and my family’s brief time there in the latter half of the 19th century turned up something appropriate to Decoration Day.

Jasper Hilbert is my great great great uncle. He was born in 1849 in Defiance County, Ohio to my great great great great grandparents Samuel Hilbert and Mary Jane Ginter. Some time between then and the 1855 birth of his brother Wallace (my great great great grandfather) the young family left the Black Swamp region, crossing the state line for the higher, drier grounds of the Fort Wayne moraine, settling in the little village of Newville in DeKalb County, Indiana. The 1860 census also places the family there and notes a new addition, baby sister Keren Happenny, born that year.

The 1870 census reflects two major changes for the family. First, they had moved again, now living outside Lansing, Michigan, where Samuel and Mary would spend their remaining forty-plus years. Below is a family picture circa 1883. The baby is my great grandmother Vera, born the previous year. Her father Wallace is standing on the left, her mother Anna on the right. Seated is her grandfather Samuel, Keren, and grandmother Mary Jane. Standing above Keren is her husband Charles Valentine.

The 1870 census also records only four members of the family. Jasper, who would have been 21 that year, is not listed among them. And his family would never learn of his fate tho they carried a hope that he was alive and they would be reunited. Jasper is listed as a beneficiary in both of his parents’ wills, if he could be located. Mary Jane died in 1911, Samuel in 1916.

The Internet allows modern day descendants to resolve a question that Samuel and Mary Hilbert lived with for 50 years. Jasper Hilbert mustered into service of the Union army on June 16, 1864 in Elgin, Illinois. Just fifteen, he was one of the “Hundred Days Men” of the 141st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, lightly trained and stationed in Columbus, Kentucky for garrison duties until October 10, 1864, to be mustered out of Chicago thereafter. These short term soldiers were to perform routine duties, freeing more experienced men for combat roles, hopefully bringing the war to an end within 100 days. On September 10, 1864, Jasper died of disease.

The context of his time will be easier to discern than the personal details of his life. But naturally those personal questions are the first that come to mind. What caused 15 year-old Jasper to trek nearly 250 miles from Dekalb County, Indiana to Elgin, Illinois? What were the circumstances of his parting with his family? Considering his young age and the fact that his whereabouts remained unknown to his family (matched with their long-held hope to reunite) did he run away? Was it boredom with rural life and the lure of wartime adventure? Patriotism? The promise of a generous bounty?

Jasper Hilbert is buried in Mound City National Cemetery, Pulaski County, Illinois.

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