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louisa-claire-tI. INTRODUCTION

II. THE DISCOVERY OF THE LETTERS TO SISTER, THE MAKING OF A BOOK!

III. ENTER THE SONGWRITERS!

IV. SISTER AND THE BOYS FROM UNION SPRINGS

V. ACTUAL QUOTES FROM THE LETTERS THAT INSPIRED THE SONG

VI. THE BATTLE OF STONE'S RIVER – THE FINAL TOUCH

VII. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 
Dear Sister
       Louisa Branscomb and Claire Lynch
 
This could be my last letter, 
I may never see the cotton fields of home again
 
I miss you, Dear Sister
tonight I never felt so all alone
 
And the fog was so thick that the Stone's River stars 
could scarcely invade the dread and the dark
 
And all that I could see when I closed my eyes to dream 
was home, sweet home
 
 
2
In the camps of Round Forest 
the midnight coals were glowing through the haze
 
The union boys sang Hail Columbia 
then we sang Look Away, Look Away
 
Then a hush in the rain and there rose a sweet refrain 
in the dark before dawn, and instead of battle songs
 
The enemy and we all sang a melody 
of home, sweet home
 
3
So if this is my last letter, 
and I never see the cotton fields of home again
 
And if I fall here at Stones River 
I know that God will bear away my soul to be with him
 
And I’ll wait for you there where all is bright and fair 
where the light of his face outshines the blue and gray
 
Where all of humankind yes, every man will find 
his home, sweet home
 
              c Millwheel Music/Thrill Hill Music

I. INTRODUCTION

There's always a story to how a song comes to be, and a little magic mixed in for good measure. That's how it is with Dear Sister. 

dear-sister-150When songwriters are doing their job, they tune in to the thoughts and feelings of their culture and times and channel this into musical poetry. If the singer of the song is doing his or her job, they take a part of their own soul and transform the song to music that conveys the message of the song. 

The song is heard by the listeners – the culture – who then take that song in some small way into their hearts and souls. They take the message or feeling into their own their own lives, for pleasure, healing, or commitment to something inspired by the song.

And this is how we come full circle, and songs come from the community and then give themselves back to the community and culture.

Dear Sister is a song that began in some ways in 1861, when the first of 4 boys from an Alabama cotton farming family named Branscomb followed the tradition of writing home from the battlefield of the Civil War. But it is also a story about human faith, fear, hardship, and triumph... and the story of the cost of war on soldiers and societies, the story of wars as old as time and as recent as Afghanistan and Iraq. It's the story of separation from loved ones, and "Home, Sweet Home," that anyone, but particularly warriors, feel when cut off from their homeland.

II. THE DISCOVERY OF THE LETTERS TO SISTER - AND THE MAKING OF A BOOK!

frank barbara claire-tIn 1991, some descendants of the Branscomb boys found a box of the original parchment letters in the house owned by their Great Great Grandmother, Lucinda Caroline, to whom most of the letters were written, with the term of endearment, "Dear Sister." Frank Anderson Chappell, Great Great Grandson of Lucinda, carefully transcribed these letters with the help of an expert transcriptionist of that era of writing, and compiled them in a book.

dear-sister-civil-war-lettersIn the book, "Dear Sister, Civil War Letters to a Sister in Alabama," Frank includes each letter exactly as written, with grammar and punctuation, along with contextual comments about the location, battle, and national events happening at the time. The book was published, and is now in its third printing. Meanwhile, the actual letters have been donated to the State of Alabama, where they are archived at the capital in Montgomery. Word has it this may be the largest collection of original letters from one family preserved from the Civil War, thanks to a very good BVE underwear box and good wrapping by a loving sister.

III. ENTER THE SONGWRITERS!

In the past, I haven't been much of a historian. I loved just about everything else in school. But on reading the original letters home in the book Frank sent me, I was touched by the universal sentiments of loyalty, faith, and human endurance displayed by these young men from Alabama, who fought until they died, or were injured, in the 3rd Alabama Infantry. As someone interested in how combat affects the personhood and spirit of its soldiers, I was struck by the process that is revealed in the letters over the 4 years of battle - to see the excitement and bravado that the boys started out with turn to despair and fear while yet they kept their faith... the process that we now know happens in all wars, and which we call "PTSD". As a descendant of the boys, I was moved to see the legacy of courage, faith, and good will which they have left us here– even in the horrors of battle.

Dear-Sister-parchment-tFirst and last, I was moved as a songwriter... by stories at once so personal and so universal, and by the actual words of several of the letters (below). 

As always, music is there. Home Sweet Home was referred to in Dear Sister, but in a special story from the Battle of Stones River, which took the concept of "Home, Sweet, Home" a step further, and is woven into our song.

Thinking of my friend and brilliant co-writer, Claire Lynch, I thought this was a perfect song for her joining in, and hoped she would! I grew up in Alabama, and Claire too has spent years in Alabama. Claire is particularly gifted in taking story to song, conveying the emotion of the human story, and also a brilliant singer. I knew she could help with what I felt was a unique kind of song.

We met over hummus, wine, and chips (I think I brought chocolate too) and within 30 or so minutes, the rough idea was flushed out on paper (computers, of course!) and guitar was in hand... and immediately the long descending melody of the first line – seemingly just right for the emotion of a letter home that might be the last - just came right out – a true joint songwriting moment! We finished up the edits by email, and Claire and her band played the song at their next practice! I think we both had a good feeling, spurred on by the awesome playing by the band and their excitement about the song too.

Jump forward, and I was pleased to find that Claire decided to include the song on her first Compass release, and further showing her belief in the song, to make it her title song! The singing, and the immaculate playing by her band members have given the song wings. We hope you will enjoy it, and we hope you will find something in the music to take with you as you go.

IV. SISTER AND THE BOYS FROM UNION SPRINGS

Bennet Hill Branscomb and his wife, Eliza Bellotte Branscomb (double names were often used at the time) brought their family by wagon and horseback to Union Springs, Alabama, in 1842, about 20 years before the war. Their dream was to acquire a cotton farm, enlist their children in the running of the farm. To this end, Bennet Hill acquired some 400 acres of the land. Their home was modest, sustained by the family garden, and they had 5 or 6 slaves, considered relatively few for the South at the time. They were joined by an English immigrant, James Hunter, who worked on the farm. He had "designs" on their firstborn, Lucinda, and they were married in 1843, when Lucinda was 16.

civil-war-mail-pouch-tBennet and Eliza had 8 children, of whom 4 went to war as members of the Third Alabama Infantry regiment. "Dear Sister," the book, contains approximately 100 letters from the boys home to their family, mostly their sister Lucinda. The children in the family were:

1. Lucinda Caroline 1826- 1913 (die in Union Springs)

Married James Hunter, who helped on the farm then became a tailor, as did Lucinda. As her brothers were killed one by one, her father gave up his dream of working the family cotton farm with them, and finally, destitute, moved in with Lucinda. Frank Chappell, author, is the Great Great Grandson of Lucinda.

2. Richard E. Branscomb 1827 – 1893 (died in Union Springs)

Richard was exempt from the war conscription because he was a saddle maker and harness maker, which was considered a necessary occupation for the cavalry, as horses played a major role in being ridden and pulling the artillery in the war. Richard's son, Lewis Capers, was a Methodist Preacher. His son, Harvie Branscomb (of Nashville, TN) was my Grandfather.

3. John Wesley 1829-1886 (died in Union Springs)

John worked with Richard, but deeply desired to join his brothers at war, and entered in the second year of the war. He was wounded in battle, and went to Virginia to recuperate and assist at a confederate hospital, though records indicate he never fully recovered from his wound. He returned from war to marry and

4. William Henry 1831 – 1862 (died in battle in Richmond, VA)

William was very close to his brothers, James and Lewis, and went to war to serve near them. He was stricken with measles, and went to a confederate hospital in Richmond. The letters indicate he was worried about his brothers, and vice versa, but in the throes of battle both died unable to visit their brother, and William died alone.

5. George Clayton Branscomb 1832 -1851 (died in Union Springs)

Little is known about George, who died at age 19 in Union Springs.

6. Elijah Legard (1836 – 1871) (died in Union Springs)

Elijah was inflicted with a lifelong illness, possibly TB, and was unable to go to war, though apparently he wanted very much to join his brothers.

7. James Zachariah (1838 – 1864) (died in battle at Spottsylvania, VA)

James was an articulate and often poetic writer, and wrote most of the letters home. He was a sharpshooter in the infantry and died at the Battle of Harris Farm. Several years ago, Frank and some family members went to research the location of his death, and erected a family plot. The story is captured in a historical video:

8. Lewis Sylvester (1843 – 1864) (died in battle at Harpers Ferry, VA)

Lewis, like James, was a sharpshooter. He had gone out ahead of the regiment to scout, and was picked off by a Union sharpshooter in the yard of a Ms. Margaret Cross, who was at the window, and went to his side. Ms. Cross found his bible in his coat, and carefully took care of it until the mail ran a year later, when she sent it home to Lewis's mother, as Lewis had requested in his own handwriting in the front page of the bible.

VIII. QUOTES FROM THE LETTERS THAT INSPIRED THE SONG

FROM LEWIS (p. 90)

"I would like very much to see you all but I reckon it will be a long time first and perhaps never; but hope if not in this world I will in another. I think of home very often and would like to see it but feel like I am doing my duty here so I try to content myself

Your brother, Lewis Branscomb"

FROM JAMES (p. 62)

"... Tomorrow I am going to write another letter, and keep it where it can be sent home if I should be killed in time of battle or any way be called from life to eternity. But God grant that I may see you again. ...I often think of home and friends, though not in sadness, but the happy days and years I have spent at the old homestead and looking forward when I shall return to the embrace of a tender mother and loving sister. I  am form (from) home surrounded by danger and toil and many temptations though I remain as ever your affectionate and sincere brother,

J.Z. Branscomb”

FROM FAMILY FRIEND AND FELLOW INFANTRYMAN THOMAS L. JOHNSON

The 4th here was kept as a holy day, then came a beautiful brass-band out from Norfolk and played for us, it played "Dixie" and many other beautiful tunes all of which made us feel sad enough, but at last it struck out on "Sweet Home" that was more than a brave soldier's heart could bear, and I saw many turn their backs while the tears flowed from their eyes, as they thought upon the past, and I must confess that when I thought of the many times and places at which I had sung the same tune it made me think of the past. I felt it a relief to shed tears and felt it showed no weakness. ..

End, T."

VI. THE BATTLE OF STONE'S RIVER: THE FINAL TOUCH

The middle Tennessee area where Claire and I live is rich with Civil War history. Having the ideas from the letters circling through my mind for a while, I found myself walking along the trails by Stone's River, where I came upon the story of the great battle there, which took place the first week of 1864. In this battle some 20,000 soldiers were killed, making it one of the bloodiest of the war. In the end, the Union took Murfreesboro, which enabled them to set up camps to provide the soldiers food and rest before the great march South on Georgia.

As both sides were camped on opposite sides of Stone's River between Murfreesboro and Nashville that cold and rainy New Year's Eve, they took turns, as was the custom, singing battle songs to rally the spirits for the fight. Finally there was a moment of silence, and a lone soldier began singing "Home, Sweet Home," after which both sides joined in.

One point along the river was the bloodiest – Round Forest, or "Hell's Half Acre," near Antioch, TN. According to historical documents, the Union broke the usual M.O. of battle and crossed the river to attack the confederates before dawn, while many were still asleep in their tents, or milling about in their pajamas preparing the fires for breakfast. The battle was essentially a slaughter, for this reason.

According to Stone's River expert, Park Volunteer Captain Robert Turpin (himself a distinguished Vietnam veteran), there is one written account of a soldier who crossed the river near here, stating, "We were walking on bodies 5 bodies deep, and still we advanced, in the face of the cannons."

Though we do not believe the Branscomb boys were in that particular battle, the letters do refer to singing "Home Sweet Home" (see above), faith, and for James and Lewis, the premonition that one of their letters might be, as indeed did happen, their last.

VII. ACKNOWLEGEMENTS

I would like to thank all those who made this song possible. To name just a few:

Claire Lynch
Frank and Barbara Chappell
Garry West, Alison Brown, and Compass Records
Emily Amos, Compass Records
The Claire Lynch Band:
Mark Schatz, Matt Wingate, Bryan McDowell
My GGGrandfather Richard
(thank you for being a saddle maker and so you lived and I am here)

All the men and women of this country who serve in the name of justice, including Aunt Louise, one of the first (if not the first) women doctors to serve in WWII in a combat zone, and Dad, who was a doc on a "little bitty boat that guarded the great big boats” in WWII.

Finally, the servicemen and women who have taught me about war and inspired me for 30 years, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, in my day job. You guys rock.

--- Louisa Branscomb, July 20, 2013