WHEELING - You never know what you might find in that forgotten box shoved deep in a closet or in a dark corner of your basement. Al Eimer can attest to that.
For the Triadelphia resident, that box held a precious glimpse into his family's past, pressed between the leaves of an old Bible - a brief letter from Eimer's great-grandfather, a German immigrant and Union Army private in the Civil War, to an unnamed sister.
Henry Imer (the extra "e" was added to the family name by Eimer's grandfather) penned the letter on Jan. 28, 1862, from the mountains of what is now West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. The Army stationery depicts an image of an eagle clutching a red, white and blue shield over the words: "Then conquer we must - for our cause, it is just - and this be our motto, 'In God is our trust!'"
Photo by Ian Hicks
Al Eimer of Triadelphia is shown with a letter written by his great-grandfather, Henry Imer, while he was a soldier in the Union army during the Civil War.
It was written three weeks after Imer, three of his brothers and the rest of the 1st West Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment helped defeat a force of more than 2,000 Confederate troops commanded by Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in a skirmish at Blue's Gap. It was a rare loss in an otherwise spectacular 1862 campaign for Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.
The way Imer signed the letter - as a member of the "1st Reg. Va." infantry - demonstrates that while Imer was fighting to defend the Union, he still identified himself as a Virginian. Even though the process was well under way, the state's 55 western counties wouldn't officially separate from the "Old Dominion" and join the United States for almost another year and a half.
Al Eimer originally came across the letter about six years ago. He decided to keep it quiet, telling only close family members, and put the Bible away again, where it was all but forgotten.
Then, some weeks ago he found it again. This time, with the nation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, he decided it would be an appropriate time to share the discovery.
"I'd been looking for it and couldn't find it, and all of a sudden it showed up. I don't know how to put it into words," he said of finding the letter once again. "Just overwhelmed."
A search of family records reveals four Imer brothers - Henry, 24; Conrad, 26; Hanson, 32; and William, 18, entered the regiment at Wheeling in late September to early October 1861, after the three-month service period for those who answered President Abraham Lincoln's initial call for 75,000 militia after the fall of Fort Sumter. All four served in the 1st West Virginia's Company E.
Henry Imer's letter describes a "very hard march ... knee deep in mud" after the engagement at Blue's Gap. He goes on to write, "Tell brother Fred that I hope it won't be very long if God spares me before I see him again."
It's unlikely Henry got his wish. The youngest of the Eimer brothers, Frederick enlisted in the 15th W.Va. in September and soon contracted enteritis - an inflammation of the small intestine.
Though quite treatable today, the disease was fatal for Frederick, who died Nov. 20, 1862, in Cumberland, Md., and was buried at Antietam National Cemetery. It's estimated more than two-thirds of those who perished during the war fell victim to disease rather than an enemy bullet.
It appears all four brothers of the 1st West Virginia survived and were mustered out of service in the fall of 1864, months before the war's end. Details on Conrad are sketchy, but some records indicate he may have lived until the 1890s.
After leaving the army, Henry returned to Triadelphia, where he married Eliza Branstrup of Roney's Point on March 1, 1866. Together they had 12 children, including Al Eimer's grandfather, Frederick Rudolph Eimer. Their first child, Annie, died at age 3.
Henry died in 1922 at the age of 85 and is buried at Stone Church Cemetery in Elm Grove. Though he signed his correspondence as "Henry Imer," his headstone reflects the family name's spelling change.
Al Eimer is a military veteran himself, having served in the Navy from 1955-57 on the USS Helena, stationed off Long Beach, Calif. For a while, he sold cars in Wheeling before spending much of his career managing a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Steubenville.
In later years, he served as a pastor of Tri-Valley Harvest Church in Triadelphia.
"I'm retired now, but I still have people call on me for certain things," Eimer said.