Kelly: From a secret barrel, a family's forgotten Civil War history

James Bond didn't know what to expect when he opened a barrel his father had kept private. Inside was a treasure trove of letters, diaries and memorabilia that chronicled the experiences of his Yankee ancestors during the Civil War.

His name is Bond.

James Bond.

The Omaha man loves his name, and doesn't mind when people make note of it, as almost everyone does.

James, 47, wasn't named for the iconic Ian Fleming character. And unlike his fictional Cold War namesake, he is no secret agent.

But he has spent the past two years unearthing, for him, a fascinating secret. A Civil War secret.

His father's secret.

In a dry-goods barrel that his dad kept private before he died, James found a treasure trove of diaries and letters to and from his Yankee ancestors, three of whom fought for the North.

One received the Medal of Honor. Another saw John Wilkes Booth two days before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln and then saw the conspirators hanged.

“Just to hold the letters in my hand, it was pretty awesome,” James said. “This was my family. It was pretty special.”

In the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, a mystery remains: Why didn't his father want anyone to see the letters and diaries, which he stored in a 19th century oaken barrel?

* * *

James Bond's father, Milton Bond, who died in 2010, was a renowned folk artist in a medium called reverse-glass painting.

For much of his life he was a New England oysterman and sailor, so he began painting nautical and coastal scenes on clear glass in the 1960s. In 1998, the governor of Connecticut declared a “Milton Bond Day.”

Milton was 47 when James was born, and father and son didn't develop, shall we say, the closest bond.

“My dad was a different kind of guy,” said James, an Air Force veteran who has restored many Omaha homes and is now restoring ornate moldings at the Orpheum Theater. “I don't know why he didn't share what was in the barrel.”

In fact, Milton downplayed it, saying it was nothing.

“When I would ask,” James said, “he was overprotective about it. He made it sound boring — just a bunch of old letters and receipts. He had told me to stay away from it.”

When his father's estate was settled, though, James took possession of the barrel and found the diaries and 393 letters, mostly to and from a family of five brothers and three sisters.

The paper on which the diaries and letters were written has survived well, he said, because it is linen-based and was stored in a cool basement.

Even before shipping the barrel and its contents to Omaha, James began reading and sorting letters, laying them out on a bed in his motel room in Connecticut.

“Whatever was in the barrel was special to my dad, and now it was special to me,” he said. “And I'm kind of a history geek.”

James stayed up until 3 a.m. that first night, riveted by what he read.

* * *

Once he got it all back to the Elkhorn-area home he shares with his wife, jazz singer Susie Thorne, James began cataloging and scanning.

He keeps the originals in a bank vault but displayed them at his home for me and a World-Herald photographer.

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His great-grandfather, Frederick Curtis, wrote to a brother from New Harpers Ferry, Va., on Oct. 23, 1864, after being taken prisoner — and escaping.

“My horse is now doing duty down in Dixie for some Johnnie Reb,” he wrote. “I was the only one out of (45) men that escaped.”

His boots were in pieces, he wrote, and he had no stockings. His feet hurt so much that on every step, he could cry. He had no clothes except what he wore.

”It is so cold that I can hardly write. You have no idea how I have suffered. … But I am thankful that I am alive and am not in the hands of the Rebels.”

There is much more. Diaries contain firsthand references to Abraham Lincoln, including the future president's March 1860 visit to Bridgeport, Conn.

After his speech there, the Curtis brothers helped give Lincoln a torch-lit send-off at the Bridgeport railroad station.

Among other Lincoln references:

» Frederick's brothers, Maj. Elliot Curtis and Medal of Honor recipient John Curtis, saw Lincoln at several military reviews.

» Elliot wrote that he had sat at a table in a restaurant across from John Wilkes Booth two days before the assassination. Booth, he said, had been “nervously fiddling with his fork.”

» Maj. Curtis received a letter informing him of the president's death. It came from an Army captain, William McKinley, a future wartime president (Spanish-American) who himself would be assassinated in 1901.

» Elliot and his troops were put on guard duty over the assassination conspirators. After their hangings, he wrote: “Justice had been done when they swung off into eternity.”

* * *

Much has been written about the Civil War, but after reading everything from the barrel, James felt he had something important — to his family, yes, but maybe to others, too.

He has consulted with publishers and other experts, and he believes that the documents could be the basis for a book, a documentary or, if he gets the material in the right hands, a screenplay.

Bill Christen, an author and a Civil War re-enactor, visited Omaha with his wife to see James' collection.

“We were just amazed at all the stuff he had there,” he said this week from his home in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Mich. “It was more than I expected to see.”

Bond holds another item from the barrel, a Confederate musket. MARK DAVIS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Besides all the documents, the collection includes a Confederate musket, manufactured by the British company Enfield. The rifle apparently was picked up off a battlefield.

Its markings have been traced to a blockade-running Scottish steamer, the Fingal.

“It was part of the very first delivery of guns from England to the South,” James said. “It's also the lowest serial number known to exist.”

But the guts of the collection are in writing. It comprises a family story that is both military and civilian.

“What I see that's remarkable,” Bill said, “is the extent of the different voices. And the other thing that's remarkable is that the whole collection survived in that barrel.”

He and his wife have worked on independent movie sets, and he said it takes a long time for a story to progress to a screenplay then to funding then to actual filming.

“But I think this rises to the level of a three-part miniseries or a short movie,” he said.

At the least, he said, the diaries and letters will make a book of interest to Civil War buffs.

James called on a high school friend who had a connection to Joel Cohen, writer of the screenplay for “Toy Story” and other films.

Cohen made no commitments, James said, but was kind enough to spend two hours on the phone and to continue mentoring him.

* * *

James has found nothing embarrassing to the family, which only adds to the puzzle of his father keeping the barrel's contents private.

Indeed, much of it is a source of pride, including John Curtis' Medal of Honor — at age 17. He was recognized for sneaking behind the lines in Baton Rouge, La., and bringing back two prisoners at the point of a bayonet.

In the aftermath of discovering the documents, James has connected with distant Curtis cousins. One in Pennsylvania has another cache of Civil War diaries.

A century and a half after America's deadliest war — 750,000 deaths, by an estimate made last year — that era still holds many in its thrall.

Large casualty numbers don't tell personal stories in the way that firsthand accounts do.

Maj. Elliot Curtis wrote of a Southern family named Caradine that he met in New Orleans, where he served as provost marshal. Their son, he was told, had dressed in full Rebel uniform and started for Union lines to surrender.

Elliot soon learned that a Rebel in full uniform had been shot on approach.

“I got a lock of his hair, a button and a piece of his shirt. When I arrived that evening, the family was sitting around the table playing euchre. They recognized what I gave them as their son's. Such an outburst of grief I had never witnessed, and I absented my quarters till it subsided.”

War and grief go together.

James Bond is thrilled with the discovery of his family connection to the Civil War.

His father once declared the contents of that barrel off-limits. Now James wants to share it with the world.

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