By Peter Vankevich
Islander-author Pat Garber might not be here had it not been for Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
She revealed this Aug. 19 during her talk in the Ocracoke Library about her latest book Heart Like a River: the story Sergeant Major Newsom Edward Jenkins 14th North Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865 (Schroeder Publications 2011).
Jenkins, in a meticulous diary that’s part of Garber’s family papers, was captured at Appomattox in 1865, and was scheduled to be executed. A northern general, after hearing that Robert E. Lee had surrendered, halted the process sparing Jenkins’ life. That general was none other than George Armstrong Custer.
“Had it not been for Custer, I might not have been born,” Garber said about her great-grandfather’s reprieve.
Her book about her great-grandfather’s years during the Civil War is based on family-held letters and his diary.
That Jenkins survived that terrible war was just shy of a miracle and he went on to lead a prosperous life, passing away in 1921. He fought in 13 battles, including Williamsburg, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg and Appomattox. Not surprisingly, he was twice wounded and twice captured.
Although Garber had been aware of surviving Civil War letters held by the family, it was much later as an adult that she learned of the existence of a diary Jenkins had written during the war.
The problem was that it was very difficult to read because of the small handwriting.
Garber recounted how she took the diary with her to a cabin in the Adirondacks during the winter of 2002.
“With three feet of snow on the ground, I took on the meticulous task of transcribing the diary one page at a time,” she said.
The result of her tenacious efforts was an insightful look at the Civil War through the eyes of a Confederate soldier, and, with a series of short essays interspersed, a perspective from Garber, the great-granddaughter.
“In all of his writings, he never mentioned slavery as a reason for the war,” she noted. Rather, “to him it was the defending the homeland and against invaders.”
Garber discussed her own life growing up a proud daughter of the Confederacy and later an anti-war activist and Civil Rights supporter.
She got her undergraduate degree in Native American Studies, and over her career worked with several tribes in different capacities.
Considering her background and career, this connection to Custer was a shock.
Multi-talented, Garber, who also is a poet and songwriter, smiled as she held her guitar to begin her talk.
“I bet you didn’t expect a song,” she said, and proceeded to sing the Civil War ballad, Johnny Reb, that she grew up hearing in the family household.
The book gets its titles from one of Jenkins’s entries in 1863: “The heart is like a river, when soft or fluent it flows through it channels, and cheers and invigorates life, but when hard or frozen it only reflects a far off shadow of surrounding objects.”
This book is available on the island at Books to be Red, the Village Craftsmen and the Variety Store.