Memorial Day was established to remember the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for each of us. Our family’s soldiers and sailors all came home from war with one exception. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died in the “Great War,” World War I, from a sniper’s bullet. In the Stilson collection are hundreds of photos of Harris Stilson’s older son but I also have Leon’s letters from boot camp (Camp Lee, now Fort Lee), postcards,  and photographs that he sent home for his father to develop.

Camp Lee hospital postcard

His letters after he left for France are especially poignant. His mother’s letters that arrived after his death were eventually returned to her. Decades later, I found them and they made me cry.

Leon Stilson on leave

Letters and photographs, not only of Leon but of so many young Richmond men going off to France, many of whom had never left home before,  inspired my fourth book, available this fall.  War affects families and cities as well as countries. Postcards filled with the details of combat training, homesickness, and words designed to relieve his mother’s worry, highlight the heartbreak accompanying each young person going off to war. Every brave, scared, lonely young man sent messages home echoing Leon’s words.

Richmond soldiers to Camp Lee

Harry Stilson took hundreds of photographs of soldiers, sailors, Armistice parades, air ships, and anti-aircraft guns. He documented the Broad Street Station return of his son’s unit at war’s end. The persistence of a grieving father led Harry to a family in Petersburg, Virginia,  whose son did return from France and who witnessed the fatal wounding of Leon Stilson. Letters from Mr. Thomas Ivey and his son George described how one man died in simple, heart-wrenching words. I believe those letters and documents illustrate how war impacts us all.

George Ivey letter

In 1932,  Mary Perry Stilson sailed to France on a Gold Star Mother pilgrimage to see where her son is buried among 17,800 graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Paris scenes, 1932 maps, ship menus, even her passport and Gold Star Mother Identification, all were lovingly preserved. When I started working on the Stilson collection of images, the enormous number of wartime photographs struck me. So did that pilgrimage of all those mothers who traveled so far to stand by a grave identical to thousands of others and remember their little boys.

 

 

cemetery

I think one young man’s story becomes symbolic of many stories. Richmond’s dead are listed on a commemorative stone at Byrd Park under an American flag. The Carillon was dedicated as a memorial because these deaths were personal. Our city lost these boys, too.

098 memorial, leon and colored

We lost all the possibilities of all those young people, all the amazing lives they could have lived. I’m not into military history and don’t intend my book as such. It will be a personal look at who went to war, images of one city’s response to a worldwide conflict. I want to share letters, postcards, notes, and anecdotes about Richmond’s boys: farmers, mechanics, students, streetcar conductors. Sons, husbands, fathers. Those who came home and those who did not.

075b LeonLeon Stilson at Hartshorn College (now site of Maggie Walker Governor School) on his last leave before sailing for France
Each family grieves in its own way. Memorials can be as impressive as the Carillon or as quiet as a yellowed packet of letters. Those expressions of grief echo through decades and we should be respectful of them.

Gold star ID
Harry must have sent money to George T. Ivey, the young soldier who was with Leon. In George’s letter to my great-grandfather, he said “I suppose you desire to give expression to your appreciation of what I did for your boy, who fought by my side. The little that I was able to do for him was done gladly and cheerfully, but I would have done the same for any other, for I would have been neither a soldier nor a man if I had failed. I did what I could, and regret that I could do no more. I was near him until ordered away by my superior. I think of him nearly every day, and sincerely regret that such should have been his fate. My last service for him was to wrap him in my rain coat, as he complained of the cold; then I had to leave.“ George Ivey thought about Leon Stilson nearly every day. Don’t we owe the men and women who gave their futures, their everything, for us at least one day a year of remembering and gratitude?

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