Friday, August 27, 2021

Will historic 'Bachelor's Rest' farmhouse walls be saved?

In early April 1865, the Union Army used Truely Vaughan's farmhouse near Deatonville, Va.,
 as a makeshift hospital. Confederate prisoners may have been cared for here, too. 
(All photos courtesy of Michael Meehan)

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In early April 1865, as the battered but still deadly Army of Northern Virginia crept toward Appomattox Court House, the U.S. Army fought Robert E. Lee's rear guard near Truely Vaughan's farm outside Deatonville, Va. To care for their wounded, the Federals' III Division, II Corps established a makeshift hospital at the bachelor farmer’s modest, four-room house.  

The farmhouse, now in disrepair, dates
to the late 18th century.

For posterity or perhaps simply because they were bored, some of the 250 to 300 wounded at Vaughan’s farm—it was known during the war as “Bachelor’s Rest”—wrote their names or initials on the homestead's walls. One of them, John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania, suffered from a ghastly, life-altering battle wound to his face. 

More than 155 years after the corporal left his mark in a house near Lee's final retreat route, his heart-rending story touched a Pennsylvania native with a deep interest in Civil War history and historic preservation.

“It’s almost like he has reached back in time—I really have affinity for this guy,” says Michael Meehan, who aims to preserve the scrawling in the farmhouse for future generations.

“Just walking into that room in the farmhouse and seeing that man’s name on the wall and you go, ‘Holy cow!’”  

Meehan—who grew up in Stewartstown, Pa., roughly 45 miles from Gettysburg, but now lives in Meherrin, Va.—must work fast. Victimized by nature, time, and neglect, Vaughan’s late-18th-century house has nearly deteriorated beyond repair. With the blessing of the farm’s current owner, who acquired the house and surrounding property in 2011, Meehan intends to remove the walls. But he needs the public's help, so he has established a GoFundMe Page to raise $3,500 to defray costs. Ultimately, Meehan and other local preservationists want to have the artifacts displayed in a museum.   

A view of the Virginia countryside from the farmhouse.

Besides Shivler, Meehan has identified three other soldiers who wrote on the farmhouse walls: Privates Luther Calkins and Cornelius Mahorn of Company K of the 105th Pennsylvania; and Corporal George McKechnie of Company I of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. With the aid Patrick Schroeder, the historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and others, Meehan has researched the backgrounds of each soldier, with pension file documents providing rich details.

On April 6, 1865—three days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House—the 105th Pennsylvania fought Confederates near Deatonsville, a continuation of fighting at Saylor’s Creek. Among the regiment's 16 wounded that day were Shivler, Calkins, and Mahorn. 

Calkins suffered a wound in his left foot, between his second and third toe, with the bullet coming to rest near his ankle. “It must have been incredibly painful,” Meehan says. Less than a year earlier, he had suffered a wound in the right arm in brutal fighting at the Wilderness. After the war, he married, raised a family, and moved throughout the country. 

Meehan identified Mahorn by his initials on the wall, but the nature of the Pennsylvanian’s wounds and his background require more research. 

McKechnie, who battled dysentery in 1864, suffered a wound from a stray bullet in his left hand in support of a firing battery near Amelia Springs, Va. The bullet tore through his index finger and middle finger, exiting below the thumb. Following the war, McKechnie—who was probably in his late teens when he enlisted—returned to Maine.

Near his name, Private Luther Calkins of the 105th Pennsylvania may have drawn
 the illustration at lower left.
Severely wounded John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania wrote his name on the farmouse wall.

But it’s the story of Shivler, who served in the 105th Pennsylvania’s color guard, that moves Meehan most. 

After a bullet struck the corporal in the face, a 105th Pennsylvania comrade thought he was killed. As Shivler, who was 30 or 31, staggered to his feet, he was nearly trampled by a horse. Somehow, he made it to Vaughan's farmhouse, where his grievous wound was treated. Perhaps Vaughan, who remained on his farm during fighting in the area, walked through his house as Shivler and other Federal wounded lay in the cramped quarters. 

An illustration from John Shivler's pension file
depicts his April 1865 battlefield wound.
(Courtesy Michael Meehan)
In an era long before plastic surgeons,  Shivler endured with a terribly mangled face. After the war, the veteran married a widow named Maria and made a living as a tailor. But by 1902, he resided in an insane asylum in Mahoning Township, Pa. Nine years later, Shivler died at age 77 and was buried in a cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.

“This incident affected him forever,” says Meehan of the corporal's wounding, perhaps in a “grand charge” on earthworks near Deatonville. 

In addition to money, the removal of the  fragile walls requires expertise. Luckily for Meehan, his brother is a building contractor who will aid the effort. The plan is to cut studs from the walls, put plywood behind and Plexiglas in front of them, squeeze the Civil War treasure together “like a sandwich,” and remove the artifacts.

"I saw John Shivler wounded in the face," 105th Pennsylvania comrade Daniel Shomber
testified in an affidavit found in Shivler's pension file. "He fell and I thought was killed."
(Courtesy: Michael Meehan)

In the meantime, Meehan will continue to research the backgrounds of each of the ID’d soldiers as well as Truely Vaughan, who owned roughly 1,400 acres, 30 slaves and farmed tobacco, among other crops. Through, a genealogy site/rabbit hole, Meehan has even tracked down descendants of Calkins and McKechnie. The Maine soldier’s descendant was “absolutely stunned” when Meehan contacted her.

Meehan also will continue to research the fighting at Deatonville, the little-known scrap in the war's waning days. "We are still trying to lay out battle there because there are very sparse records on it," he says. Dozens of soldiers wounded from the battle may have been cared for on Vaughan's farm.

For Meehan, all this work is, well, a labor of love. (Forgive me, seventh-grade English teacher 😅) 

“I have been passionate about history since I went to Gettysburg when I was 6,” he tells me, "and I’ve been married to it ever since.”

John Shivler's grave in Philipsburg Cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.
(Find A Grave)

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