Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Robert Simpson, Nancy Ellen Leach and Laura Ann Embry

Robert Simpson, Nancy Ellen Leach and Laura Ann Embry

Early Life

            Robert Simpson was born in Jefferson County, Kentucky on June 21, 1841. Robert's father, Hedgman Simpson, was born in Virginia in about 1788. He had served in the War of 1812, enlisting in Woods County in what is now West Virginia and seeing duty at Fort Meigs near present day Toledo, Ohio.

            Sometime after the war, Hedgman had married and moved to Kentucky where at least one child, Santford, was born in about 1836. That wife presumably died and Hedgman took an Indiana or Pennsylvania born bride, Mildred Holmes, on July 20, 1838. Robert was the only child known of this union. Where the marriage took place is unknown, though Kentucky is the likely candidate, since all of Hedgman's known children, both before and after this time were born there. The union was short lived, with Mildred's death probably occurring in 1843 or 1844. Oral tradition says that Mildred died when the team of horses pulling her wagon bolted and she was thrown to the ground. Then on October 8, 1845, in Jefferson Co., Kentucky, Hedgman remarried. The new bride was Pennsylvania born Rachel White, who was to be the only mother that Robert was to ever know.

            Little is known of young Robert's early life. His home life would have been a bit unusual to most. His father was some 52 years his senior. He had a stepmother, her children by Hedgman, and a half brother from Hedgman's marriage preceding that to Mildred. According to an affidavit Robert would subsequently provide, the "clan" moved to Ohio County, Kentucky in about 1848. It was probably there that Robert first went to school and, like his father before him, learned to read and write. Robert's absence from the 1850 census is an enigma. The eight year old Robert and his siblings do not appear in the tabulation. Perhaps they were omitted by mistake or perhaps they were away with relatives.

            Few facts are known of the next eleven years of Robert's life. From his pension files we can infer that the family lived in one community somewhere in the Cromwell post office district from the time of their arrival until the war. We know that Robert attended school and we know that he was a healthy young man. One neighbor would later recall his participation in log rolling contests.

Civil War

            With the outbreak of the Civil War in the Green River counties in the fall of 1861, Robert and half-brother Santford went to war. They signed up in Hartford on October 3, 1861, for a three year stint with a Kentucky state militia regiment formed by West Point graduate John H. McHenry for support of the Union. Privates Robert and Santford Simpson were assigned to Captain Hudson's Company of the 17th Regiment of the Kentucky Voluntary Infantry. This subsequently became known as Company D.

            Only the barest of military training had been conducted when the word came that Confederates were heading north to defeat the fledgling force before their preparation was complete. No doubt the alarm was great given the fiasco at Bull Run the preceding spring when raw Yankees were thrashed. However, Confederate soldiers were little better prepared and when they met on October 29th near Morgantown in Butler Co. a standoff ensued. The bulk of the Union forces were led along the north bank of the Green River towards the town of Woodbury in Butler Co. Colonel McHenry and the 17th had crossed the river, intent upon making their way along the south bank. As they came to the spot that would become known as Big Hill, they encountered a small Confederate patrol. In the ensuing skirmish, three men from both sides were wounded. A friend of Robert's, Private Granville Allen, fell fatally wounded. Granville and three others had been deployed about 40 yards out in front of McHenry's mainline. As Rebel horsemen approached, the four took cover behind trees. At some point during the subsequent exchange, Allen stepped out from his cover and was instantly killed. The body was quickly taken back to the Regiment's camp near Cromwell. This being the first death due to conflict in the regiment and in the region, a man was sought to bear the body and the bad news back home to Beaver Dam. Robert, being a close friend, volunteered. Dressed in his still new uniform, Private Simpson took an ox cart and made the short journey, arriving during church services. Understandably, Robert's appearance with the body of one of the young men of the town caused a considerable stir. Granville was buried in the Leach cemetery near Rosine and Robert returned to his company.

            The day after the skirmish at Big Hill, the remainder of the Union forces went on to Woodbury and engaged the Rebels, but the 17th took no part in this action. These engagements must have made it clear that these regiments of novices were in some danger of if engaged by an experienced Rebel force. Consequently, they retired some thirty miles to the northwest to Camp Calhoun along the Green River in McLean Co., KY to finish their training. At Calhoun, measles and pneumonia swept through the troops, leaving many disabled and requiring many to be discharged. It was a scene that would become common in the early part of the war.

            Robert’s unit fought at Ft. Donelson and then fought at Shiloh, Corinth, then joined other units in Huntsville and moved to Nashville and on to Louisville and then back to Clarksville and Nashville. Their last battles started near Chattanooga, then to Atlanta, and then back to central Tennessee, ending with the battle of Franklin.

            Robert's discharge became official on January 23rd, 1865 when the unit was disbanded in Louisville. He had served just over three years and three months. Of the 1,473 men who had served in the 17th, 135 had died in battle or as a result of their wounds, 363 had been wounded and 163 had died as the result of disease, prison or accidents. Thus, almost forty five percent of the men available for service did not survive the war with their health intact. Many, like Robert, would suffer for many years to come.

Marriage and Family

            Having returned from the war, Robert seems to have spent some time fighting the effects of army life. He was plagued by diarrhea and lung problems. Both symptoms commonly associated with consumption, a disease which permanently weakened many men and killed many more. His condition progressed to the point that he was forced to live with a Dr. Whitinghill while he received treatment. Fortunately for Robert, treatment in a warm, clean home was far more successful that field hospital incarcerations, with the commensurate filth, disease and cold.

            Thus, he recovered and soon took for his bride, the 16 year old Nancy Ellen Leach (Robert was 24). They were married on June 8, 1865, at her parent’s home. Nancy Ellen, had been born October 1, 1849, in Ohio Co. Nancy was the 4th child and 2nd daughter of Leonard Washington Leach and Rosannah Morris. She seems to have been named after her paternal grandmother, Nancy Leach (1792 - 1848). The young couple quickly set to the task of building a family with the birth of Leonard Santford on March 2, 1866 and William on August 27, 1867.  Their next child, James Ewing, was born August 27, 1870. James was the first of Robert's children to die, passing away on August 29, 1872. 

            Throughout the 1870’s, the children continued to arrive on a regular basis. First, John Thomas was born on September 25, 1872, and Simon Jackson on March 21, 1874. The first daughter, Elizabeth Ann was born on August 23, 1875. She was followed by Joseph Franklin on October 8, 1877.

            By 1880 the family was living in the Rosine post office district. Robert was still attempting to farm. His brother Santford, also a Rosine resident, lived nearby with wife Mary E. and their four children.

            The 1880’s saw no let up in the growth of the family. Hardin was born on August 25, 1880, followed by Warren Ciscro on January 4, 1883. The blessing and joy of a growing family was tempered later that year, when Robert's degrading health compelled him to begin the tedious process of trying to obtain a government pension. It was a process that he would be a part of for the next 45 years. He had been experiencing back pain which he attributed to a spinal affliction which he had contracted while on a march from Nashville, Tennessee to Bowling Green, Kentucky in August or September of 1862. When the 41 year old Robert met with the Ohio Co. Court Clerk that day to make his deposition, he was described as being 5'10", with a fair complexion, light hair and blue eyes. During examination by an Owensboro surgeon, Dr. Todd, it was noted that Robert's right testicle was atrophied to one-quarter of its normal size. This was the result of complications related to the mumps which Robert had contracted at Shiloh. The doctor would describe him as three-fourths disabled due to these afflictions. This latter aliment would cause Robert frequent pain over the next several decades. Sometime shortly thereafter, the army awarded him a disability pension at the rate of $2 per month.

            After eight boys and one girl, the string of three girls in a row must have come as some surprise. Ilona was born on June 6, 1884, followed by Sarah Francis on April 16, 1886 and finally Margaret Irene on May 15, 1888. 

            Sometime in the 1880’s Robert's financial fortune seems to have changed for the better. The family now owned 120 acres, valued at $505. But their good fortune was not to continue. Robert's back problems continued. At times he could not get out of bed without help and periodically was forced to remain in bed for days at a time. Lifting had become a high risk activity, since even light loads could bring on an attack in the lower back. As a farmer, he was dependent upon such physical activity and thus, by 1887, his doctor considered the 150 pound Robert to be half disabled due to muscular rheumatism. This was in spite of his appearance, which the Doctor describes as strong and vigorous. Still, in response to the Doctor's assessment, the government in late 1888 increased his pension to $6 per month.

            However, it was to be Nancy who first succumbed to the limitations of 19th century health care. By 1893 the 44 year old Nancy was again pregnant, this time with twins (according to oral tradition). Perhaps it was due to complications of the pregnancy or during the labor itself, but in either case, Nancy passed away on November 18, 1893. It is not known if the children ever lived or were still-born. They are simply said to have died in November 1893. Oral tradition says that the babies were both boys.

            With nine children, five under 15 years of age, the need to remarry and provide a mother for his children, must have been great. Thus, at age 54, Robert took as his bride the Butler Co., Kentucky born Laura Ann Embry, daughter of Robert and Adeline Goff Embry. The marriage took place at Laura's home on April 28, 1895. It was the first marriage for the 31 year old Laura.

            Robert and Laura picked up where he and Nancy had left off. Their first child, Mary was born on October 11, 1896, soon followed by Ira on February 16, 1898, and Eurie on September 1, 1899.

            In the 1900’s, the 60 year old Robert continued to father children. Ery Gaither was born on February 2, 1901. He died August 4, 1902. Dewey was born January 24, 1903 and Glenn on October 2, 1904. Vena was born in the family's new home in Renfrow on June 17, 1908 and finally, Roscoe was born on May 28, 1910. Roscoe was Robert's twenty-second child, eight of whom had been borne by Laura (now 46).

            In 1911, the family moved to Rosine and in 1915 moved to Baizetown.

Decline and Death

            In 1921 Robert had kidney problems and required constant care; his monthly pension was now $50.00. In 1926 the pension was increased to $72.00 per month.

            By 1926 Robert's doctor, P. T. Willis, noted that he was suffering from senile dementia and falling spells which left him unconscious for some time. Coupled with his stiffness and rheumatism, he required full time care. Perhaps realizing that Robert could not long survive with his health rapidly deteriorating, twenty-seven adults and their children gathered at his home in Baizetown on July 1, 1926 to celebrate his 85th birthday. The event was page-one news in the local paper.

            The next year one of Robert's feet began to swell. At one point the swelling progressed to where the skin ruptured. Aside from it being painful, this must have only worsened his ability to get around. Though he was often seen by Doctors, this seems to have been solely for the purpose of satisfying the requirements of the Bureau of Pensions or as part of his constant petitioning for increases. At one point, having apparently been asked for the name of the doctor who had treated him, Robert replied, "I don't ever have any physicians to treat me as I am opposed to being treated by a medical doctor". Later, his opinion of the whole petitioning process would come out in a remark that perhaps provides the clearest insight that we have into the man. Having requested increases in his pension many times and having been told that he needed to provide some kind of evidence (of the date of his birth or the dates of his marriage or of the onset of his illness), Robert wrote Washington a short but sarcastic note, "I asked for a special examiner last autumn but you never sent one. Now if I have to wait until death for my increase I will not need it".

            Sometime in late 1927 or early 1928, the family left Baizetown and moved to McHenry. There bedridden due to his rheumatism, with kidneys failing, constant indigestion, failing lungs and a weakened heart he would live out his days. From this myriad of problems, the 88 year old veteran died at 5:20 pm on June 28, 1929, in his home. Dr. Willard Lake was the attending physician and attributed the immediate cause of death to acute indigestion. Robert was buried in the old Leach Cemetery just outside of Rosine in Ohio Co. Robert was laid to rest next to his first wife, Nancy Ellen Leach, surrounded by several of his children. 

            Having served Robert faithfully as both wife and full time nurse for many years, the 67 year old widow could not really take her rest. Two of their later children, Glenn, almost 25, and Vena, almost 21, were mentally retarded and required her full care. In 1929, Laura petitioned not only for a widow's pension but also for a pension for her two 'idiotic' children who were dependent upon her. Since the children were over 16, the Bureau of Pensions denied the claim for the children while approving Laura's request.

            Laura out-lived Robert by almost 15 years. Suffering from chronic heart disease, she died at 9:00 a.m. on June 1, 1944, having just passed the age of 80. She was buried the next day in Sunnyside Cemetery, east of Beaver Dam on Highway 62.

            This document was prepared by Kent W. Brown who gave me permission to use it on this blog; he also allowed me to shorten it by removing some of the narrative about Robert’s Civil War duty.  Many thanks to Kent for this research and for sharing it with us.

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