Letters Read on Memorial Day

August 6, 2020

As we should always remember, Memorial Day is not just the beginning of summer or an excuse for stores to hold a sale. It is not even a day set aside to honor veterans and active service members. Memorial Day is to remember the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.


I have many ancestors and relatives who have served in the U.S. military, but most of them came home. Two died in the Civil War, but only one more recently, my mother’s uncle Richard Gifford who lost his life in World War I on the battlefield in France. I knew very little about this young man, my Granny’s youngest brother, except for that fact and the portrait of him that hung in my grandparents’ house and is now in my mother’s house.


A few of weeks ago, while doing some quarantine cleaning, my mother came across a box of old cards and letters, many of them to her aunt Alice Gifford, her mother’s sister, and some to Mama’s cousin Eva Gifford. Some of these cards and letters are over 100 years old. Most of them are very hard to read, but I was able to decipher some of them.


My great-uncle Richard was born in December 1897, the youngest of 11 children born to Thomas Van Buren Gifford and Mary Ann Ellis. I’ve seen his name written different ways, but the best I can tell, his full name was Richard Daniel Spencer Middleton Gifford. Some of you will recognize who he was named for. My father, Ernest Middleton Hawkins, was also named for Dr. Middleton, who delivered him. He was told that the delivery was free if they named the baby after the doctor. The doctor’s full name was Daniel Spencer Middleton, so I’m assuming a young Dr. Middleton must have attended the birth of Uncle Richard. Dr. Middleton began his practice in Dade County in 1894.


I have not been able to learn exactly when Richard Gifford joined the Army, but in April 1918, he sent a postcard to his niece Eva from New York City. Or it may have been via New York. The postcard read:          


Dearest Niece,

I will drop you a card to let you hear from me. Well, I am just fine and hope you are the same. Well, Eva, are you learning to play much?  I guess you was glad when you all got your piano. Well, I will close.                                     From your Uncle R.D.G.


The pictures on the postcard were portraits of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and General Pershing. It said Christmas Greetings, 1917.


He sent his niece Eva another card that appears to have come from New York City. It has no date on it, but reads:


Hello, Hun, how are you  I am all right and hope you are, too. Say, Eva, I am sending you a pretty card and I want you to keep it and show it to me when I come back.

From your Uncle Richard.


I find this one very sad, knowing that although she kept the card faithfully, he never came back to see it. On the front picture of a city street that says, “The Little Church Around the Corner, New York.”

I knew that Uncle Richard was buried in the Head Springs Cemetery next to his parents, but I gathered some additional information, thanks to a contributor to Find-A-Grave:


Pvt. Gifford served in the 167th Infantry Regiment,42nd Division in the First World War. The 42nd was an Army National Guard division, nicknamed The Rainbow Division because it was comprised of men from twenty six different states. The division suffered 2,644 battle deaths with over eleven thousand wounded.

Pvt. Gifford's body finally came home in 1921, three years after war's end. Records indicate his mother received his remains for burial. His parents, Thomas and Mary Gifford are buried next to him. 


I did not realize that it was three years before his remains were shipped home for burial. That must have been an additional hardship on the family. He was killed on July 26, 1918. The war ended just a few months later.


Evidently, during his service, my Uncle Richard made friends with a Dr. H.C. James of Aldrich, Ala. After the war, this doctor corresponded with Richard’s sister Alice. Here is one of his letters to her:


April 21, 1921

Miss Alice Gifford

Dear Friend,

I received your letter a short time ago and would have answered sooner only I have been sick. But I am sure, Miss Alice, I will be glad to tell you all I know of your brother. Your brother was killed on the 26th of July at Chateau-Thierry. He was killed by heavy artillery. I was taken prisoner the same afternoon.


I had several addresses which he asked me to write to and yours was one of them. As I was looking over some of my papers, I came across yours and that is how I came to write to you.


You will have to excuse me not giving a more detailed description of what happened as I do not like to talk or write about it very much.


I am sending you one of my pictures with a friend of mine. May I have one of yours?  I will close here this time. Would like to hear from you real soon. I remain

Sincerely yours,

Dr. H.C. James, Aldrich, AL


P.S. Please excuse hasty writing as I have several letters to answer. HCJ


It appears that they continued to correspond for a while, at least into the fall. It almost sounds as if he is courting her, exchanging pictures, promising to come for a visit and in later letters, he addresses her as Dearest Alice. I have no idea if the visit ever happened. Alice died at age 45, in 1933, of tuberculosis, I believe. She never married. I don’t know what happened to Dr. H.C. James, but I could find nothing about him on Ancestry.com. In several of his letters, he mentions having health problems and not being able to go back to his medical practice. I have wondered if he died young as well.


Mama said that my Granny said that Uncle Richard was her favorite brother because he was close to her in age.  He was the youngest child and she was next to the youngest. Some of her brothers were 10 and 20 years older than she was. After reading these postcards and letters, I feel like I know him a little better. He was a fond son, brother and uncle, not just a portrait on the wall.

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