THE BLOG
08/29/2013 09:11 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

To Serve Is to Live: Reflections From 'Photography and the American Civil War'

Among the sobering collection of Civil War photographs and art currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City -- photographic documentation of the Battle of Antietam (2,300 corpses strewn over the battlefield), paintings of war-ruined towns, and physician's documents of wounded soldiers -- is a photograph of a woman in uniform, holding a cavalry sword, who fought on the front lines.

It is believed that Mrs. Frances Clayton served in the Union army by joining the Missouri cavalry beside her husband, who later died at the Battle of Stones River in December 1862. Disguising herself as a man, she is posed in the collection's photograph as 'Jack Williams,' yet facts of her life story and military service are difficult to confirm. The portrait was dated 1864-66.

Surely the photograph of Frances Clayton will linger with me. Our given first names bound us in a basic way, but our similar callings connect us as kindred spirits on a deeper level. Not long after I was married, World War II began. My husband John volunteered for the Navy and was sent to Pensacola for training as a Naval Combat Air Crew photographer. It seemed a strange assignment for a young newspaper editor and writer, already exempt, but off he went, saying goodbye to our 18-month-old Johnny and me.

I was determined to join him with the baby in Pensacola, but my mother, other family, and friends were horrified. They had an extensive list of objections and excuses. When in doubt my practice was always to ask my grandmother, Mama Wicks. She listened to my story, put her arms around me, and said quietly, "Your place is with your husband." So, by Pennsylvania Railroad from Johnstown to Pensacola, and later by train from Pensacola to San Diego Naval Air Base, we traveled to be with John, where we spent some of the best years of our lives together. Mama Wick's simple statement taught me lessons about the power of love and about families belonging together.

Long before this, it was Mama Wicks who used to tell me family stories about our ancestors. For instance, when President Lincoln called for volunteers, the seven Pringle brothers (one of whom was Mama Wick's father, my great-grandfather) all volunteered. The youngest was 19, and five of the brothers left wives, babies and remote farms. When the youngest Pringle soldier was fatally wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Army permitted a brother to carry his body back to Pringle Hill to be buried at home.

It was actually the framed photograph of my great-grandfather Philip -- a quarter-plate ruby glass ambrotype with applied color -- that prompted my recent visit to the MET. My Civil War memento was the exact size and style of the framed photograph shown in the New York Times review of the "Photography and the American Civil War" exhibit.

So it was particular moving as I studied the museum's photographs of soldiers, families and battle fields considering my vivid memories of when, as a little girl I'd accompany Mama Wicks to Pringle Hill cemetery and we would visit the graves of the seven Civil War soldier-brothers, side by side.

Later, when I was the mother of a little boy, I would take Johnny to Pringle Hill and he would recite for me the names of the seven Pringle brothers, then point out the grave of their grandfather, William Pringle, who fought in the American Revolution.

These are not the only memories I have. My cousin, Frank Wicks discovered over 100 beautifully preserved Civil War letters in a shoe box in the attic of our family's home in South Fork, Pennsylvania. The letters were written by Philip and Mary Pringle, our great-grandparents.

Frank transformed the historic letters into the award-winning play, Soldier, Come Home, which has been produced for the past ten years in over 25 theaters across America, including a New York City Off-Broadway presentation.

These were my mother's ancestors. On my father's side, there is a cemetery in Mentor, Ohio with two generations of soldiers and their headstones:

CAPT. LEVI PINNY War of 1776 and his son,
CAPT. LEVI PINNY War of 1812

"When called, we go," as my brave father would say of our family, and later I would say to Johnny.

I lost my son in late 2011. He had been totally incapacitated from his neck down for the last eight years of his life, but his mind was alive and brilliant in those years. He even wrote a book, Allegheny Mountain, lying at home in his hospital bed. When we talked, every night by telephone, he often reminded me, "Hey, Mom, remember: I was a soldier, I am a soldier, I will always be a soldier. " And so he was.

John is buried in an old veterans Cemetery near Sacramento. He was buried in his Army uniform, as he requested, and an Army bugler played "Taps" at the graveside.

In my own life I have been part of the U.S. Army in diverse ways -- most recently as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point where every other week I taught a class of cadets. I was the first woman appointed to this Chair, and also the first non-graduate of West Point to hold the position. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki (U.S. Army, Ret.) followed by Duke University's Men's Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski preceded me.

So all of this came back to me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art-- Frances Clayton's story providing new energy and inspiration to serve -- when a summer Wednesday was transformed into a staff development adventure: moving, sobering, profoundly educational, even life-changing.