John Summerfield Staples: In the Shadow of History | Joy and Sorrow

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.


Click here to start at the beginning of the story.
Links at the bottom of each article will take you to the next installment.

By John H. Abel

Waterloo, N.Y., November 1864 — John Summerfield Staples returned to Washington D.C. from a lengthy and stressful prisoner guarding sojourn to Ohio and found the Capitol celebrating the re-election of President Lincoln. He wondered how Stroudsburg would be marking the event. Parades and flag-waving were probably not on the agenda.

Over the summer, Summerfield had been busy with his varied Army duties. He wrote home regularly and always looked forward to letters from Rachael. He still read at least one newspaper every day, an old habit from his recuperation days at home in Stroudsburg.

He was friends with several other young men in his outfit, the 2nd D.C. Volunteers, and they spent their off-duty hours as soldiers do. They all walked to the steps of the Capitol on March 20th and were moved, as most were, by Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

Later in life, Summerfield would recall that day and contemplate the fact that he had stood in the same crowd with John Wilkes Booth.

Events came in rapid succession now. The surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln plunged the nation into joy and sorrow simultaneously. John Summerfield, like his father, realized this ‘tour-of-duty’ was drawing to a close. It would soon be time to return home and embrace the future.


Summerfield turned 24 in August of 1869. It was a happy time for him, and he was thankful for his blessings. He and Rachael married early that year, and he secured a good job with the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and was assigned to Waterloo, N.Y.

Later in the year, they welcomed the birth of a son, Walter. Their home in Waterloo was small but comfortable and they began to integrate themselves into the social fabric of the little community. Their finances were in good order, and Summerfield’s job made train travel very affordable. Regular trips to Stroudsburg were enjoyed and allowed both sets of grandparents to dote on the small child.

The typhoid that felled Summerfield during his initial 1862 enlistment returned from time to time, but he always managed to work through the malady. Rachael’s disease was different. It struck her in 1874 and claimed her quickly. It remained undiagnosed.

Deeply saddened by the death of his wife, Summerfield considered returning to Stroudsburg with 5-year -old Walter, but he could not bring himself to leave the town where Rachael lay buried. Each Sunday after church he and Walter walked to the grave, and he tried not to weep in the child’s presence. His character and faith helped him cope during this period of grief.

Summerfield immersed himself in work and Walter, but the indomitable human spirit is never content with sorrow and loneliness.

Anna Barber, a Waterloo native, was well-educated, sophisticated and pretty. Her husband had fallen at the battle for Richmond in 1864. She and Summerfield married in 1876 and Walter, now 7, loved her as the only mother he would remember.

For two years they enjoyed a happy standard of living and when Anna announced her pregnancy, the future seemed as exciting as it had ever been.
Late in 1878, Walter was presented with a baby sister, named Anna. The baby was healthy, but the mother weakened. She lingered for two weeks before dying. Summerfield buried his second wife in the Waterloo Cemetery.

Church members and local Civil War Veterans helped Summerfield with emotional support, tended to the children and pitched-in on household chores. The small, tight-knit community did the best it could to guide him through another period of sorrow.

Summerfield resigned from his job on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and accepted a position at the Waterloo Wheel Manufacturing Company, where he was quickly promoted.

This news reached Stroudsburg and Theodore Schock, editor of a local paper, glowingly reported his “promotion to a responsible supervisory position.” Summerfield found it odd that no mention of his unique military position was made, but he put that aside and sent Mr. Schock a thank-you note.

Life as a single-parent proved too difficult, so Summerfield relocated the children to Stroudsburg to live with their grandparents. He took a job in the railroad yards in Dover, New Jersey, and commuted regularly, though not daily.

He applied for a military pension, due to recurring bouts of typhoid, but his application was denied. The military bureaucracy claimed his war-time records had been lost; a little odd, considering the man was the president’s “representative recruit.”

He settled into a routine of work, commute, visit family and friends. Love and recognition eluded him.

As 1887 drew to a close, Noble Larner, president of the Third Ward draft club and the man who so willingly recruited Summerfield to be Lincoln’s representative recruit, was interviewed by a Washington, D.C., newspaper. When asked to recall his impression of the young man who served as President Lincoln’s representative recruit, Larner is quoted as saying:

“There lived in our ward the son of a clergyman, who bore the usual reputation given a minister’s son. He was naturally a ne’re do well and it is generally believed he was killed during the Wilderness Campaign.”

It didn’t take long for that to get to Stroudsburg, and when it did, Mr. Schock was stunned. He immediately fired-off this response to the D.C. newspaper:
“Gentlemen: President Lincoln’s Representative Recruit was not killed, as supposed, during the Wilderness Campaign. At the present time he is living here, in Stroudsburg, Pa., and is a sober, honest and upright citizen, and not a ne’re do well as represented by your newspaper.”

Summerfield, not given to anger and outrage, was bemused by the whole episode.

Summerfield spent Christmas and the new year in Stroudsburg. His family brought him joy. They rode on sleds down snow-covered hills and skated on frozen ponds. There was an ice-fishing excursion one afternoon, the result of which was marvelous chowder.

The whole family went to the Christmas Eve service at the Methodist Church, and his children, like all children, looked forward to Christmas morning.
He returned to his work in Dover, New Jersey, on January 8, 1888. He died on the 11th, alone in his boardinghouse room, of a heart attack.

After the coroner completed his duties and filled-out the paperwork, noting his age as 43 years, 4 months, 27 days, John Summerfield was carried by train to Stroudsburg for the last time.

A memorial service was held at the Stroudsburg Methodist Church on Main Street, and a wonderful piece of reporting in the local paper informs us that “the church was emotionally charged and densely packed, even though a freezing rain was falling.” He was well-respected in his town.

Summerfield was interred in the Stroudsburg Cemetery, with full military honors, and he rests there to this day.

PART FIVE | Legend and Legacy