Sometimes a story from the past reaches out and finds you.
When I was a kid, I was staying with my grandparents, who at the time lived in an apartment in the back of the country store they ran in North Alabama. I don’t remember why I was looking in an old library side table that sat near the sofa, but I do remember vividly what I found.
It was small, maybe four inches by two and half, and wrapped inside a clear plastic bag. It was a New Testament, with both the front and back covers missing and the pages brown with age. Inside the first page were the words “Charles Wesley Roberts book May 9, 1863.” The writing was in pencil and faintly beneath was the name again, Charles Wesley Roberts, but this time, a different date – June 15, 1863.
I knew the family name Roberts as being on my grandmother’s line, but I’d never heard this name. I asked my grandmother about it and she didn’t know who it was either and she didn’t seem to know much about the book either. Most likely it had been left behind with my great grandfather’s possessions when he passed away. Somehow, out of all his eight children, my grandmother was left with the little Bible and not much else in terms of where it came from.
At the time I found it, I was intrigued, even as a child. I asked my grandmother if I could have the little book, but she wisely told me no as I was far to young to appreciate it at the time. Years would pass and I never saw the little Bible again, until my grandmother passed away in 2014. As we were going through her things, there it was. Still wrapped in the same plastic bag. Then and there I decided it was time to find out who Charles Wesley Roberts was…I just had no idea what a story would unfold.
It all began with a name…Carrie. I knew she was my grandmother’s grandmother, but not much more. After digging through several census records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I discovered that Carrie was from Georgia and her maiden name was Roberts. In fact, her full name was Caroline Eliza Roberts, born 1856 in Georgia. Her parents, William and Eliza Roberts, had married in Greene County, Georgia in January 1844. By the birth of their first child later that year, they were living in Meriwether County, Georgia, southwest of Atlanta. That first child was a son they named Charles Wesley Roberts, the owner of the little Bible.
By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the family was living in Fayette County and William Roberts had died of pneumonia (January 1860). Eliza was left to raise children ranging from two to sixteen years of age, alone in a world on the brink of war. Oldest son Charles would enlist in Atlanta at barely the age of nineteen in the 41st Georgia Infantry. It was the 25th of April, 1863.
By July that same year, Charles found himself in Vicksburg. He was captured when the Confederates surrendered the city on July 4, 1863. The remarks indicate he was in hospital at the time. Ten days later he was dead. It is not known whether he died from injuries or sickness, but sickness is the most likely culprit as illness was rampant during the siege of Vicksburg. The date is marked in his Civil War papers as July 14, 1863…
…around a month after the faint inscription was made in the Bible.
One of the dates in the Bible probably refers to Charles’ enlistment date – May 9, 1863. The significance of June 15th, 1863 isn’t clear – perhaps it marks Charles’ arrival to Vicksburg or the date he fell due to injury or illness. I’ll never know for sure, but somehow after his death, the little Bible made it’s way back to Georgia to his family. It passed to his sister Carrie and then to her son, my great grandfather, and on to my grandmother and then to me.
Somewhere along the way, Charles’ story was forgotten as it was passed down through the generations, but the little Bible remembered. It kept the story safe, only to reveal its secret to me, Charles’ third great niece, 152 years later.
Cover photo courtesy of http://cfnelson.everythingesteban.com. All photos not marked are by the author or from members of the author’s family.