Nick Adams was a fourth-grader when he became fascinated with the Civil War, not quite understanding that his passion would last a lifetime.
As a teacher at Gig Harbor’s Discovery Elementary, he used the backdrop of the war not just in history but in reading, writing and map-making. Once retired, he participated in re-enactments.
Today, at 74, Adams has published two books on the Civil War, and his latest pursuit is documenting Pierce County graves of veterans from that conflict.
“We’ve found 1,405 of them,” Adams said. “Twenty-four of them were Confederates, although only one headstone mentioned service in the Confederate Army. And one of those graves belongs to a Medal of Honor winner, Brig. Gen. John Sprague.”
What fueled a young boy’s interest so strongly it would become his life’s work?
“It started about the time my mother told me about my great-great-grandfather, David Brainard Griffin,” Adams said. “He was in the Union Army — the 2nd Minnesota Regiment of Volunteers — and he was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.”
Adams always kept a photo of Griffin close, and when he married, his new wife, Carolyn, paired that photo with one of her great-grandfather George Stover wearing his Confederate uniform.
“I was in my early 30s when my mother learned a cousin had been given, and still had, about 100 letters written by my great-great-grandfather to his wife and family,” Adams said. “She made two copies and gave one to me, the other to my sister.”
There also were three letters, from friends of Griffin, written to the family about his death in battle. The details were so specific that Adams was able to visit the Georgia battlefield and stand near the spot where his great-great-grandfather fell.
The letters from Griffin changed his life.
“When I first got the copies, I read them start to finish and cried,” Adams said. “They were such an intimate connection to a war I’d studied my whole life.”
At school, Adams changed his curriculum approach.
“When we studied the Civil War, I read the children those letters. The kids loved his descriptions of battles, and some were so poignant, written to a family so far away,” Adams said.
Griffin enlisted in September 1861 and was killed almost exactly two years later. In his letters, he remained connected to his wife and three children, one of them 6 months old when he left.
They were personal and touching, as Griffin sought to ask and answer questions and describe his life so far away.
Last year, Adams published a book, “My Dear Wife and Children: Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer.”
Retired from his teaching career for eight years, Adams discovered he was too old to be a soldier in Civil War re-enactments. The idea of sleeping on mock battlefields in real tents was unappealing.
So he became a civilian.
“When there are re-enactments involving the 2nd Minnesota Volunteers, I dress in period clothes as the governor of Minnesota, Alexander Ramsey, the man who sent my great-great-grandfather to war,” Adams said. “I’ll work the crowds, encourage people to vote.”
Between re-enactments, there are book signings, and Adams often talks to service clubs and schools.
And there are those cemeteries to be walked.
“I’m part of the Pierce County Civil War Roundtable, and there are similar groups around the country,” Adams said. “I walk up and down each row of a cemetery and take pictures of the gravestones of Civil War veterans.
“And it’s not just those we know were veterans — I take photographs and record the information of any man whose age is appropriate to the period, and we check them with military records.”
His Lakewood home has always been something of a history classroom. All six of his children have read or been read Griffin’s letters, and Adams is working on his 16 grandchildren now.
All that remains of his great-great-grandfather’s letters are photocopies.
“The originals are almost certainly dust now, and no one in the family seems to know what happened to them or where they were last,” Adams said. “I’m just so grateful to have copies of them.”