John Summerfield Staples: In the Shadow of History | Off to War

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Editor’s note: This is the story of John Summerfield Staples, a young man from Stroudsburg, Pa., who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He sought neither fame nor fortune for his unique experience and none has been afforded him.

This series endeavors to recognize him, his legacy, and the unusual military position he occupied as the “Representative Recruit” of President Abraham Lincoln. Installments of this series appeared in each edition of The Fanlight through Spring 2015 and the anniversary of the ending of the Civil War.

PART ONE of FIVE

By John H. Abel

STROUDSBURG, Pa. 1845 — From early morning until dusk a relentless sun bore down from a cloudless sky and heat shimmered and danced off buildings and streets. Flowering plants and shrubs, long a symbol of pride and prestige in the Borough of Stroudsburg, went without water so vegetable gardens could produce food for families.

Local streams were as low as anyone could remember. Some men harvested large quantities of native brook trout. They were salted down or hung-up in smokehouses alongside slabs of venison and carcasses of wild turkeys.

He walked past the hardware store on lower Main Street and glanced at his reflection in the large window. Hat, coat, collar and tie; he was sweltering but he was the mayor and would not consider conducting a borough council meeting without being properly attired.

He crossed the street at Fort Penn, unused and deteriorating, and continued up Main Street, past the barbershop where one lonely horse stood hitched to a post. He nodded to the barber, the barber nodded back. He moved along, a slower gait than usual but commensurate with the heat and he pleasantly greeted the few pedestrians he encountered. They greeted him in return and called him “Mr. Mayor” and he liked that.

He turned the corner at 7th Street, his shirt drenched in perspiration, and saw two men unloading an ice wagon at the Stroudsburg House. They called out to him and he raised his hat in recognition. Beer, ice, not a bad idea — Maybe after the meeting, he thought. He crossed the square where a single flag hung limp in the motionless air and proceeded up the courthouse steps. It’ll be hot in here, he thought.

The members of the borough council were already seated when he entered the second floor room. The Mayor appreciated their punctuality and said so. They sat in comfortable chairs around a large, highly polished oak table and waited for him to open the meeting. They all knew the agenda, it had been the same for months. Change was coming in this year of 1845. Good change, important change. Telegraph lines, railroad lines, new hotels. Prosperity was in the air and the council wanted in on the action.

Near the western end of Main Street, the Pocono Creek cut through a large stand of willow trees. In the shade of their long weeping branches, a group of young boys were busy constructing a dam from rocks and fallen tree trunks. The pool was already knee-deep and their efforts were soon well-rewarded. They sat in a circle with only their heads exposed and were cooled by the refreshing water of the stream. Talk centered on how easy it would be to catch frogs and salamanders in the pool they had created. That conversation naturally migrated to a lengthy debate on how to best startle the neighborhood girls with their amphibian captives. No one imagined that in less than 20 years four of these five boys would perish in a war to abolish slavery and preserve the Union.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, with the temperature over 100 degrees in council chambers, it was unanimously agreed to adjourn early. All departed by the rear door, closest to their elegant and spacious homes two blocks north of Main Street. The Mayor, exiting the front door, changed his mind about the beer. There was an election coming in November and more votes could be garnered outside the tavern than inside.

As he approached Main Street, the Mayor was met by the Methodist minister and he extended his hand in greeting while silently acknowledging his good judgment on the Stroudsburg House tavern. The minister informed him that the wife of John Staples had just delivered a baby boy. Both were well and the child would be christened John Summerfield. Parting company with the minister he decided to visit the Staples family and congratulate the new parents. They were a prominent family and could always be counted on for a vote.

The heat broke Monday night, the rain came Tuesday morning. Dust turned to mud, summer gave way to autumn, and quietly, but predictably, the winter snows encased the little town of Stroudsburg.

By 1860, the prosperity talk of 1845 had taken root. The telegraph hummed and the trains arrived daily, redistributing wealth throughout the county. Hotels seemed to spring from seeds and rail passengers disembarked at stations that dotted the landscape from Delaware Water Gap to Cresco.

John Staples was a respected wheelwright and also served the area as a supply pastor. He used a sharpened wood chisel with skillful precision to create a perfect spoke for a wagon wheel. Well-trained muscles and dexterous hands seemed to work by themselves today for his heart and mind were preoccupied. Just two weeks earlier he had given his son, John Summerfield, now 18, permission to enlist in the Union Army and on Monday the boy would be leaving. Stocky, barrel-chested and strong, he looked like a soldier, but John Staples knew his son. He was slow to anger, good-natured, and kind. Shooting a squirrel is one thing, shooting a man is another. But youth has its own perception of battlefield glory.

As woodchips fell to the factory floor, he let his mind wander back to earlier times. He smiled as he recalled happy events from the boy’s childhood. His heart filled with a father’s understanding as he remembered his son developing feelings for a childhood friend named Rachael Barry. The name Barry interrupted his reverie and abruptly returned his thoughts to the present. Robert Barry, Rachael’s uncle, had recently paid young Summerfield $500 to act as his substitute in the Union Army. Although a common practice, there were not many paid subs from the area because there weren’t many volunteers willing to fight in “Mr. Lincoln’s War.”

He closed his shop and began the short walk home. The aroma of simmering stew and baking bread mingled with the chill of autumn and he felt thankful to be in this place. Tomorrow he would travel to Delaware Water Gap to fill the pulpit at the Presbyterian Church for his friend, the Rev. Horatio Howell, who was already serving with the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry. He and his wife would spend the rest of the day with their son.

Coffee brewed and breakfast telegraphed its scent throughout the house. He joined his son at the table and picked at a piece of warm bread, his appetite diminished at the thought of the boy’s departure. Summerfield was not experiencing any decrease in appetite as he wiped his plate clean with a second slice of thick-cut bread. Earlier he had made a simple entry in the family Bible: Nov. 3rd, 1862. John Summerfield departed, Co. C, 176th Reg., Pa. Vol.

It was time. The boy shouldered his rifle and swung his pack to his back. His mother turned his collar up and kissed his face. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. The heavy oak door creaked as it swung open to a carpet of early morning frost.

John Summerfield Staples stepped out of his family’s home and into America’s Civil War.
PART TWO | Retreat to Stroudsburg