Author Ken Spurgeon shared some first-hand accounts from the Civil War during a book talk at the Butler County History Center Thursday evening.
His latest book, “A Kansas Soldier at War: The Civil War Letters of Christian & Elise Dubach Isely,” shares the story of a couple and their family in the Civil War. It came from the research he had done for his thesis. He received his master’s degree in history from Wichita State University and now is a history and government leader at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts and at Newman University.
“The letters are not just from soldiers, but from home,” he said. “There were a lot of letters written.”
The soldier and family he focuses on is Christian Isely, who was born in Switzerland in 1828.
“He came over when he was 3,” Spurgeon said.
Christian was part of a big family that settled in Ohio.
At age 19 or 20 he went to Missouri, then moved to the southwest part of Nebraska.
“He goes to St. Joseph, Mo., and becomes a carpenter,” Spurgeon said.
He stayed there 10 years.
In the meantime, Elise’s family received a letter from their family telling them they should come to America. She starts working for her aunt and uncle in a boarding house, which is where she met Christian.
“Their courtship begins,” he said.
In 1861 they decided to marry.
“They had never seen slavery until they got to St. Joe,” Spurgeon said.
One of her letters tells of a time she is in their house and a series of slave auctions starts. She can see them out the window and sees a woman on the auction block with her hands out screaming, not because she is being sold but because her son was just sold to a different family so they will be split up.
“We were learning about slavery and we hated slavery,” Spurgeon said Elise wrote in one of her letters.
In the summer of 1861 a lot happened.
Spurgeon said they got up one day and an American flag was flying, then the next day a confederate flag was up.
“There’s just a lot of tensions,” he said.
Christian stayed out of the war until a group of Ohio soldiers showed up in Missouri to settle things and he decides he had better fight for his own state.
“He writes a great letter to Abraham Lincoln,” Spurgeon said, adding that he doesn’t think he ever sent it because it doesn’t appear in Lincoln’s letters.
Page 2 of 2 - Christian goes on to join the 2nd Kansas Calvary because they were the only recruiters around. He also felt Kansas was more of a free state.
“He goes to Leavenworth,” Spurgeon continued.
There Christian gets really sick and ends up fighting for his life from disease. While he is sick, his unit moves on and when he is well he is told he has to stay there and be a nurse. It is about a year and a half later before he gets into the field. His next stop is Fort Scott.
In addition Elise’s little brother and two of his cousins joined the 5th Kansas Calvary.
One of the stories tells of Christian’s fight to get leave to go to Elise’s brother when he is sick and he makes there right before he dies.
He also was stationed at Fort Lincoln, which has been in private ownership for decades now. But Christian did include a map of the fort in his letters, which is included in Spurgeon’s book.
“Finally his unit is moved and he goes to war two years later,” he said. “He spends most of time chasing bushwhackers. There are only small battles.”
When the war ends Christian is no longer a Democrat, but a die-hard Republican.
Christian lived until 1919 and Elise lived until 1936. They had 10 children.
These are just a few of the stories included in Spurgeon’s book, which includes not just letters, but a lot of narrative as well.
Spurgeon said when he was doing his research three of the grandchildren were still living, including one who lived in a house Christian built in Wichita, where Iselys had lived up until that grandson’s death this year.
In addition to his books, Spurgeon was the writer/producer of the Lone Chimney Films documentary “Touched by Fire: Bleeding Kansas, 1854–1861” and served as the writer/director for “Bloody Dawn: The Lawrence Massacre.” He was the cofounder of Lone Chimney Films Inc. and has served as the executive director since 2004. Ken and his wife, Amy, have four children and live on a farm near Towanda.
Copies of his book are available for purchase and signing at the museum gift store.