Fact or fiction: Veteran forsakes past for family

leonard l. bleeker

Old-time newspapers were notorious for printing articles that were long on fanciful stories but often short on verifiable facts.

As such, many curious stories that appeared in papers a century or more ago have to be read with a skeptical eye. Readers then, as today, would view information in printed form at face value, when in reality it was a fraud, whether purposeful or accidental.

In fairness to the folks of the past, researching the validity of printed information was a good bit harder.

Not only was there no Internet to employ for fact-checking, but books were much scarcer, especially among the lower classes, libraries were an anomaly outside big cities and competition among newspapers often meant that outlandish stories were run “as is” and sometimes even further embellished, to get a leg up on rivals.

So when I came across the following story in the July 26, 1899, edition of the Fairfield News and Herald, a Winnsboro, S.C., newspaper, it both caught my attention and raised my suspicions.

The death of Leonard B. Bleeker aged 72 years which recently occurred at Yates Centre, Kas., has revealed a case of self-sacrifice seldom heard of outside the domain of fiction. Three years ago Bleeker went to that country peddling cheap articles and, too old and weary to proceed farther, a kind hearted farmer took him in and cared for him until he died. To the family which befriended him he told the story of his life, reserving for the grave the specific names of persons and localities. He stated that in 1861 he left a wife and five children in Michigan and answered the first call for volunteers. The fortunes of war were against him and for months he lay a prisoner in Andersonville prison. For some reason he was led to believe that a certain other batch of prisoners would soon be exchanged. Among them was a dying man and the two comrades exchanged names and military designations. The soldier died and the death was reported as that of Leonard B. Bleeker, and is so recorded in the war department. The real Bleeker was released after a time, rejoined his regiment and served until the close of the war without communicating with his family. Then he went back and found his wife married to another man. He ascertained that his children were well cared for and then left the community without revealing his identity. Throughout his life he carefully guarded his secret and since going to Yates Centre, was often urged to apply for a pension, but stoutly refused. Even when near death he would not reveal the location of his former home or permit anyone to communicate with old associate(s). He was a man of more than ordinary education and the truth of his story or the possession of a noble purpose in his long sacrifice cannot be doubted.

Indeed, the entire story seems utterly fanciful to us today. But a few things to consider:

Loved ones often only learned of the death of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers during the Civil War from other members of their unit. Today, the final resting place of tens of thousands of men, North and South, remain unknown. Some men simply never returned from war and their families never learned what happened to them or where they fell.

If a family did receive notification that a soldier had perished, it had every reason to believe the information. In a war that claimed some 750,000 or more lives, families likely had conditioned themselves to some degree to the fact that their husbands, sons, fathers or brothers might not return.

Mistakes did happen. Among the more notable: The body of an unknown dead Confederate soldier was shipped to Gray, Maine, in place of a dead Federal from that community. There was no information infrastructure to ensure families were notified of casualties in a speedy and accurate method.

Bleeker’s story isn’t implausible, but verifying it is difficult. One thing is for certain: A grave exists for a Leonard B. Bleeker in the Crandall Cemetery in Le Roy, Coffey County, Kansas. The gravestone notes that Bleeker was born on June 7, 1826, and died on July 1, 1899.

And the above story appeared in papers around the country, including the Watertown (N.Y.) Herald, the Huntington (Ind.) Daily News-Democrat, The Dodge City (Kan.) Globe-Republican, the Biloxi (Miss.) Daily Herald, the Dubuque (Iowa) Daily Herald, the Corunna (Mich.) Journal, and the Anderson (S.C.) Intelligencer.

There were plenty of men who, decades later, claimed to have fought in the War Between the States in an effort to claim a pension. This obviously wasn’t Bleeker’s goal, as, according to the story, he refused to even apply for a pension, even during his last days when he was unable to provide for himself.

A cursory search of National Archives records, however, shows no Leonard B. Bleeker having served in the Union army during the war.

But one supposes that if Bleeker had kept his secret in the ensuing 34 years following the end of the conflict, he would probably not have divulged his real name in his final days, for concern that his wife and children would learn of the cruel twist of fate.

There was a Pvt. Bleeker L. Barker – which, if you rearrange the names and initials and extrapolate, could become Leonard B. Bleeker – who served in Co. H of the 23rd Michigan Infantry regiment, according to the National Archives.

However, Bleeker L. Barker died in 1890 in Conway, Mich., according to Ancestry.com.

The reality is that we will likely never know what Bleeker’s real name was or whether his story was indeed true.

Finally, it should be remembered that the story of Leonard B. Bleeker was published 35 years after Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his noted poem “Enoch Arden.”

In that work, Enoch Arden, a fisherman turned merchant sailor, leaves his wife and children to go to sea with his old captain to support his family. But during the voyage, Arden is shipwrecked on a desert island with two companions.

Eventually, his two fellow castaways die, leaving Arden alone, and he remains lost and missing for 10 years.

Upon finally being rescued, Arden returns home to find that his wife, who had believed that her husband had died at sea, is married happily to another man, and the two have had a child together.

In Tennyson’s work, Arden never reveals to his wife and children that he is really alive, as he loves her too much to spoil her new happiness. In the end, he dies of a broken heart.

Whatever the truth behind the life of Leonard B. Bleeker, it still makes for a compelling read 115 years later.

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