Union sergeant's Civil War letters to family surface

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John Nelson Black was a three-year enlisted man in the Union infantry. History remembers his regiment for its hard luck, with its ranks decimated at Antietam, Maryland, and its men captured in the siege of Plymouth, North Carolina. But Black himself would have remained virtually anonymous, save for a quirky gent named McNutt and a discovery worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

In October 2004, C. Nelson McNutt passed away at the age of 105 on the very acreage where he was born in June 1899. Living in a ramshackle cabin among neighboring mega-mansions in Weston, McNutt, who was the grandnephew of John Black, had two passions: saving everything and tending his vegetable garden. The rail-thin figure - a ringer for the farmer with the pitchfork in Grant Wood's American Gothic - thrived on engaging passersby with a cheery wave. He was quick to inform them that he remembered driving a Stanley Steamer, that he had been drafted into both world wars, and that a lawyer in the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been his lawyer, too. But McNutt never mentioned the stash of letters gently yellowing in the house he had built in 1934 - letters handed down to him from his mother's mother, a direct link to America's charismatic past.

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