The Civil War had its giants — President Abraham Lincoln and generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson among them.
But Craig Naylor, a composer and former college professor now living in Kalispell, prefers researching the lesser-known heroes of the war fought 150 years ago. He told their stories — and played an original composition honoring each of the three — at Billings Public Library on Tuesday for a crowd of about 25 people.
“There’s something special about regular people who did extraordinary things,” he said.
Naylor is a retired faculty member at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., about halfway between the two warring capitals, Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Va.
“Four of the major battlefields were within 10 miles of our house,” he said. “We became immersed in the Civil War.”
Naylor’s talk Tuesday afternoon — held 149 years to the day following Lincoln’s death — was sponsored by the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau.
After a brief talk about each of his three unsung heroes, Naylor played a recording of his composition dedicated to their memory.
Elizabeth Van Lew
Far from the “Crazy Bet” moniker she was given, Van Lew actually spent her family fortune running a Union spy ring out of her Richmond home.
She employed “a huge network of people to help her get the information out,” he said, smuggling bits of information about Southern troop movements in hollowed out eggs hidden in the hollowed out soles of a servant’s shoes.
Mary Bowser, a former slave in the Van Lew household, was educated at Van Lew’s expense and later freed. Blessed with a photographic memory, Bowser eventually found work in the very heart of the South’s governance — as President Jefferson Davis’ housekeeper.
On or about April 1, 1865, Van Lew alerted Grant that Lee’s army was leaving Richmond. The single day’s notice was enough to allow Grant to block Lee’s planned meeting up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army; Lee surrendered to Grant on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865.
After the war, Van Lew was considered “a pariah” in Richmond, Naylor said, but used her appointment as postmaster to integrate the local post office. She died penniless and her mansion was torn down soon after her death.
The piece Naylor wrote about her, “Enduring Honor,” includes fife, bugle and drum snippets that sent signals to soldiers going into battle. It’s based on two hymns popular in Van Lew’s day: “Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us” and “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”
Pronounced “Ee-lee,” Ely Parker was a Seneca Indian who by age 17 was fluent in all Iroquois languages and English and conversant in Latin and Greek. He studied law and was ready to sit for the bar, but was denied the opportunity because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen (Native Americans were not granted that right until 1926).
Parker met Grant in 1857 while working as a clerk in his father’s tannery in Galena, Ill. By 1863 he was a captain in the Union Army, joining Grant’s staff as his adjutant. It was Parker who penned the surrender papers Lee signed at Appomattox Court House.
After the war, President Grant appointed Parker the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He resigned two years later over a controversy over contracts while at the same time trying to reform the corruption of Indian agents in the West, Naylor said.
History knows Parker as “the last of the great Seneca chiefs,” said Naylor, whose piece honoring Parker is entitled “The Eagle Dance and the Feather Dance.”
Washington was born a slave in 1838 and made his home in Fredericksburg. Early on in the war, Union troops invited him to cross over the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia, and so he did. Later Washington wrote that that transformative event occurred on Good Friday. “It was not only Good Friday, it was the best Friday I ever had,” he wrote.
Washington later became the cook for Union General Rufus King and later moved to Washington, D.C., where he was known as one of the “first freed” former slaves.
Naylor’s piece honoring Washington begins with the hymn “Cross Over” and concludes with the spiritual “O Happy Day.”
Naylor told the crowd that he enjoyed combining his love of history with his passion for music.
“As a composer, I just wanted to do something to commemorate this defining moment in our country’s history,” Naylor said.