Greenport woman uncovers great-great grandfather’s Civil War memories

06/09/2011 5:36 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Gail Horton at her Greenport home on Tuesday. On the table are reproductions of the Gettysburg letters and several maps of the battlegrounds.

Southold residents have always taken special pride in local history, and this summer a special exhibit at the Stirling Historical Society in Greenport will highlight the role residents played in the Civil War.

As Gail Horton and a band of like-minded history buffs — Karen Anderson, John Montgomery, Clarebeth Cunningham, Antonia Booth and Tom Monsell — searched the society’s collection for items and information to tell the stories of local troops who fought in the Civil War, they came across an unexpected treasure trove in first-hand accounts.

They happened upon a collection of letters written by Daniel Reeves Cox, great-great-grandfather of Martha Mazzaferro of Greenport. Mr. Cox fought in the battles of Chancellorsville in Virginia and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

“I just didn’t think anything about it,” Ms. Mazzaferro, said of the letters. Now 83, she still lives in a Greenport home built 106 years ago by her grandfather, Quincy Ward Cox. Ms. Mazzaferro’s daughter, Karen Jimenez, who now lives with her, became involved with the Stirling Historical Society, got excited about the Civil War exhibit and realized the letters’ value.

The papers also include a marriage certificate dated Aug. 30, 1868, issued when Daniel Cox wed Mary Louisa Penny. The couple subsequently made their home in Mattituck.

In his letters, Mr. Cox, who was only 17 when he enlisted, wrote about being wounded in both battles. He returned home after being wounded at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1963. After reenlisting, he joined the Army of the Potomac and fought at Gettysburg in the early summer.

In that battle, Mr. Cox was wounded in the leg by musket fire that took off part of the bone, Ms. Mazzaferro said. His leg was left permanently numb.

His initial letter recounts his travels from New York to the gentle farmland of southern Pennsylvania and Gettysburg, where the epic battle ws fought July 1 to 3, 1863. With great losses on both sides, Union soldiers defeated the Confederates commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee. It was a turning point in the war.

In the first letter, Mr. Cox recalled waiting for a train when “a good natured young man came up to me and said, here is something for you. And I gazed at it and at my surprise, saw a yard of old gold ribbon and on it was the words ‘Orange Blossoms.’” It was the name of the “good old soldiers who went from our place and fought so brave and called themselves by that name,” Mr. Cox wrote.

He recalled getting near Gettysburg and having to search for a place to stay overnight. “We were so tired,” wrote. He later learned that he’d slept on a mattress with a bullet embedded in it.

In subsequent letters, Mr. Cox wrote about how he and his “chums” would lie flat on the ground to avoid being shot when they saw rebel troops.

“He was exhausted a lot of times,” Ms. Mazzaferro said. Not only did he sustain injuries, he watched as many of his friends were wounded or killed. More than 50,000 troops from both sides were killed or injured at Gettysburg.

Ms. Mazzaferro has no idea how her ancestor dealt with the horrors of war he witnessed. Her late husband, John Mazzaferro, a World War II veteran, wouldn’t talk with most people about his “gory” wartime experiences. He did, however, share those memories with her.

That so many of Mr. Cox’s letters were retained through the years is proof “someone must have really liked him,” Ms. Jimenez said. She recalls seeing a notice of his discharge with an indication that he would receive a pension of $2 per month. She knows that one of her uncles once had medals that Mr. Cox had earned, but those have been misplaced. So, too, has a sword that was once in Suffolk County Historical Society museum in Riverhead, she said.

Mr. Cox died at age 60 on Dec. 14, 1904. Family records show that he succumbed to Civil War injuries.

Ms. Horton and her team are continuing to gather items for the exhibit. She credits society president Bob Baumann with supporting the exhibit with the funding it takes to mount it.

“He’s steadily leading us to good things,” Ms. Horton said. She’s hoping the descendents of other Greenporters who fought in the Civil War will step forward with mementoes and records. She also hopes the former troops’ relatives will make the exhibit interactive by contacting the Stirling Historical Society to share war stories passed down to them.

Have a relevant item in the attic or basement? Ms. Horton would like to hear from you at 477-0631 or [email protected]

The exhibit will be open on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the summer from 1 to 3 p.m. starting July 2.

[email protected]