This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
There’s a quote attributed to the writer Carl Sandburg: “When a society or civilization perishes, one condition can always be found: They forgot where they came from.”
Loyd Hoke hasn’t forgotten.
He read the Sandburg quote aloud Tuesday night to members of the Caldwell County Historical Society and the Caldwell County Genealogical Society, people who also have not forgotten where they came from.
In particular, Hoke – who lives in Hickory – didn’t want to forget about his great-great grandfather, Ambrose Hoke.
But that was tough, because Ambrose had never returned home from the Civil War. No one in the family knew what had happened to him.
As a kid in Catawba County, Hoke lived right across the road from his grandfather, who worked for Duke Power and spent his free time looking for Ambrose Hoke. He had letters Ambrose had written, but he never let anyone see them. The family called his search a wild goose chase, and he never got the chance to prove them wrong. He died in 1982, never having found Ambrose.
His grandson did.
Some time after his grandfather died, Hoke dug up Ambrose’s letters, and he was hooked. He had to find him.
“It was my turn to feel a nudge from a ghost of the past,” Hoke said.
He started obeying that nudge in 2000, poking around on the Internet – a luxury that had never been available to his grandfather — for clues about Ambrose.
On Jan. 3, 2007, it happened.
A relative sent an email: She found a letter written to Ambrose’s wife, informing her of her husband’s death.
The mystery was solved. Ambrose had spent his last days on Smith Island, now known as Bald Head Island.
Hoke knew what he had to do. He wrote a book: “A Rock for Ambrose,” published by Lorimer Press. The book is historical fiction, the result of Hoke’s attempt to get inside the head of this great-grandfather of his, who fought and died for the Confederacy but barely saw battle.
All the names in the book, along with the movements of the company, are real, Hoke said.
Not one man in Ambrose’s company died from battle wounds. The company saw no major battles – they narrowly missed the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.
Some were deserters. Many died from disease.
Hoke’s book tells the story of a war that tore the country apart at the seams but that, for many men, was a war of waiting. For Ambrose and many others, death came not from rifle or saber but from sickness.
Most estimates hold that, throughout the war, about 200,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died from battle wounds. More than 400,000 died from disease.
And plenty of them took their stories with them when they died.
There’s a scene in Hoke’s book where he imagines Ambrose taking a walk with his son. They pass a graveyard and his son asks him, “Are those people dead under those rocks?” And then, “Will I be under one of those rocks one day?”
“Son,” Ambrose tells him, “There are rocks waiting for all of us one day.”
Of course, Ambrose never got a gravestone. But someone knows his story now, and someone told it.
“My book is his rock,” Hoke said.