John Summerfield Staples: In the Shadow of History | Legend and Legacy

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

I first heard of John Summerfield Staples in the summer of 1973 when I was 25.

Intrigued by and curious about his Civil War experience, I began researching his life and times as time permitted. The more familiar he became to me, the more fascinated I became with him.

Many have risen to positions of power and glory only to end up as footnotes in seldom-read history books. Staples is different — he’s always been a footnote. His position as President Lincoln’s representative in the Union Army is certainly unique in military history, but attempts to recognize and honor him have not exactly ignited the public’s interest, although there have been some highlights.

Consider the following:

1909 — This year marked the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the nation’s interest in the 16th president was awakened. Historians and biographers accommodated the public with books and articles, and Summerfield rode the same rising tide, to a much smaller degree, as Lincoln and his generals.

1910 — A. Mitchell Palmer, a prominent Stroudsburg attorney, was serving as a U.S. Congressman in 1910. He introduced a bill that would appropriate $20,000 to erect a statue or monument to Staples on the courthouse square.

Honoring Staples while, at the same time, generating a few tourist dollars sounded like a good idea, so the local papers all came out strongly in favor of this endeavor. The bill, however, died in committee. Staples was not seen as a national figure and his service was not viewed as a national event. Consequently, no money, no statue.

1933 — The Pennsylvania state highway department constructed a new bridge over the Pocono Creek on West Main Street in 1933. The local Knights of Malta dedicated and named the bridge for Staples, ordered a plaque to be installed, and arranged a ceremony for the grand opening.

Politicians, dignitaries, marching bands and even Staples’ great niece, 10-year-old Eleanor Symons from Dickson City, gathered at this well-attended event.
Little Eleanor pulled a cord, which unveiled the plaque and the President Judge of Monroe County declared the bridge open, after pouring a cup of water from the creek over the plaque.

This was the high-water mark of recognition for Summerfield. For more than 20 years, both bridge and plaque served their intended purpose and thousands of students became familiar with his name, if not his service, as they crossed his memorial bridge on their way to school.

The devastating flood of 1955 took the bridge down-stream and the plaque went with it. The bridge was rebuilt, but the plaque remains lost.
Over the next 20 years, there was little activity honoring Staples.

1987 — In 1987, thanks to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Staples’ badly worn and almost illegible headstone was replaced.
The original grave marker from 1888 is now on display in the basement exhibit space of the Stroud Mansion, headquarters of the Monroe County Historical Association, a fitting and honorable final resting place for it.

1990 — In 1990, 35 years after losing the original plaque to the 1955 flood, a new plaque was installed on the bridge, and another dedication service was held. Although not as elaborate or as well attended as the first, it demonstrated the good intentions of the local citizens toward their native son.

1995 — All seemed well until 1995, when a group of vandals, obviously interested in local history, stole the plaque off the bridge.
This plaque, like the original, was never recovered.

1999 — In an effort to combat the acts of nature and thieves, an official Pennsylvania State roadside marker dedicated to Staples [pictured above] was erected at the intersection of Dreher Avenue and West Main Street in Stroudsburg, where it stands today.

Today — It is astounding to me that Punxsutawney Phil gets an annual day of recognition, while acknowledgement for John Summerfield Staples remains sporadic at best. His unselfish service, like that of all citizen-soldiers, should not stand in the shadow of history, but in the bright light of a well-remembered legacy.

A legacy of service, without regard for recognition.