George Gentieu and World War 1

In honor of the Armistice Day Centennial Celebration, November 11, 2018

the modest great war story of a modest great uncle

“I am in your place over here so that America returns to France your services,” George Gentieu wrote in a letter to his father from St. Nazaire, France on January 5, 1919. “Best Wishes  1842 – 1919, France – America, Father and Son.”

George is Pierre Gentieu’s third son, born in 1878. He was 40 when he served in the Army in France during World War 1. He liked to say that he served in France so that America could return to France the service of his father in the Civil War.  Pierre Gentieu came to America from France in 1860 and was not even an American citizen when he fought in the Civil War.  (In fact, 150 years later, Pierre’s descendants are still saying it was amazing that Pierre volunteered to fight in the Civil War when he was not yet a citizen.)

The Civil War had an enormous impact on Pierre’s family, because fighting in the Civil War profoundly affected Pierre’s entire life.  Pierre’s involvement in Civil War veteran activities and all things military and commemorative influenced George, along with each one of his five siblings. For example, in 1901 George was Captain of the Appomattox Camp, No. 2, Md. Division of the Sons of Veterans, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Frank, Pierre, George Gentieu, circa 1898

George moved to Imperial, California. When the Big War came, George  wanted to “give the Germans a sample of what we are in America when we get fighting mad.” He wanted to show solidarity with the French by fighting in France. Even though age 35 was the limit for military enlistments and George was 39, he filed for an age exception.

“I feel more fit at 39 years than I was at 20, know more, can take care of myself and am stronger,” he wrote. An age exception was made and in August of 1917, George enlisted in the California Army National Guard, which he joined because he heard they’d be going to France. This group formed the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment of the 65th Artillery Brigade, 40th Division, and George became a corporal. They were sent to France in August 1918, just four months before Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

George did not face combat but did serve during the transitional period. Soldiers with technical skills were kept in France long after the war ended. As an engineer, George stayed in France until July 1919. He was granted three furloughs during that time, which he used to visit his father’s family in Orthez and Bordeaux three times.

Corporal George Gentieu shaking hands with his French cousin, Auguste Pondarre, and Sergeant Henry, 1919, Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France.

George went to great lengths to become a soldier in the Great War against Germany, much like the efforts of his father in regard to the Civil War 55 years earlier. After all, George and Pierre were descended from soldiers who fought in Napoleon’s Army – the grandfather and great uncle of Pierre. “I want to uphold the honor of the country and the name of Gentieu,” George wrote to his mother on April 1, 1917. While accomplishing that, he had the good fortune of getting to know his French aunts, uncles and cousins. George experienced the culture of the ancestral home that was so important to the new American Gentieu family, because they so loved and honored their father, Pierre.


George never married and never had children. He was an investigative writer and owner of an industrial plumbing business. He died in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack at age 52 in January 1931, just six months after Pierre passed away. He is photographed below with Pierre in 1919 after World War 1, and in 1929, the last photograph taken with his father.





Photo by George Gentieu, circa 1928

Curiosity and Inspiration — a dedication to Norman Gentieu

I really ought to dedicate this Pierrepenny blog to Norman Gentieu (1915-2009). Norman totally changed my life. He was a distant cousin I had never known about, until December, 1991, when I received a letter from him. Norman was searching the Gentieu name at the Philadelphia Library when he found a review of a show of my photos in American Photographer. The photos that were featured were the old found slides from the 50’s — the series called “Confabulations.”

Norman wrote to me that he thought I was related to his grandfather Pierre Gentieu, who came to the United States from France in 1860 at the age of 18, and did I know he was a photographer, and that his photos are in the collection of a museum in Wilmington, Delaware?  What?? WOW! I knew Pierre was my great great grandfather and that he came to America, and I thought he was an artist, but nobody ever told me he was a photographer, and here I was many years into my photography career.

I could go on about this forever. It meant a lot to find out that my ancestor was a photographer. I became a believer, of some sort, as if knowing, even more so, that I truly was on the right path in pursuit of my destiny.

At that time, I had been sharing a studio with another photographer for three years. I wanted to get my own studio, but wasn’t sure I could make it. After reading that letter, I went out looking for my own place. On January 13, 1992, I moved into the corner space of the fifth floor of 380 Lafayette St., corner of Great Jones St., New York City, a beautiful 19th century industrial building. The loft was 2,000 open square feet and had 12 windows with sun streaming in all morning and until 3 in the afternoon.

A month after moving into the studio, Tom and I drove to Philadelphia to meet Norman. This is when the photos were taken with Norman, shown above. Norman had Pierre’s banjo, his camera (which he generously gave me two years later) and a lot of Pierre’s documents and photos. He showed me a photo of Pierre, the first one I ever saw. Pierre was wearing some sort of uniform with a big LG on the front. Norman said it stood for “Lafayette Guard,” a Civil War veteran’s group of Pierre’s.

That’s when I realized that Pierre was my guardian angel. At least that’s what I want to believe. My career really took off after that. My Lafayette Street studio was very special, and I kept it for 10 years, until the rent went sky high, after which I rented studio space by the day.

Curiosity, Norman’s wife said about Norman contacting me — curiosity and taking a chance, she said were two of his most distinctive attributes. Through Norman’s search of the Gentieu name, and through my use of the old found photos of an anonymous family, I found my own family, and so much inspiration. Thank you Norman — say hello to Pierre for me.

Alvah and Anna Buckingham of Putnam, Muskingham County, Ohio

Many Springfield Twp. Farms Became Part of the City
Zanesville Sunday Times Signal, Sept. 28, 1958
Dinner at my grandparents, Sherwood and Helen Pinkerton’s house on Richmond Road in Toledo, Ohio, 1954. Baby is me. Woman on left is Aunt Elise Pinkerton Stewart. (see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.)  Paintings of Anna and Alvah Buckingham on the wall.
I never thought of my ancestors as being activists by looking at these two in the paintings that I grew up with in my grandparents dining room. But now I see them in an entirely different way! They came from fierce New England Puritan stock who believed that the laws of God trumped the law of the land that allowed slavery. Putnam was a small village across the river from Zanesville Ohio, and my New England ancestors were among the original settlers. Zanesville, on the other hand, was settled by folks from Kentucky and West Virginia. And there were fights.

Putnam Presbyterian Church was active with abolitionist activities. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu
Part of the Underground Railroad, this house has several hideaways. The owner, Major Horace Nye (veteran of the War of 1812) was threatened so many times by his foes that he slept with a pitchfork next to him for protection. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu 

My ancestors’ names are Alvah and Anna Buckingham. Alvah helped build the Putnam Presbyterian Church in 1835, which was actively involved in the abolitionist movement. William Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first minister of the church. Frederick Douglass spoke there in 1852. For many years, the church held a monthly prayer service for the abolition of slavery. The first Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention took place in Putnam, as well as the first publication of the abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist. What a great community!

 
Alvah and Anna Buckingham house, 405 Moxahala Avenue, built 1821. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu

In 1799, when Alvah Buckingham was 8, his family moved to southeast Ohio, on horseback. In 1819 Alvah met Anna Hale of Glastonbury, Connecticut on a trip back east and married her. They built a house on Moxahala Avenue in 1821. (Three generations have subsequently lived in the house.) He was in the mercantile business with his brother and brother-in-law and later, opened a lumber trade. In 1852, he built the first grain elevator in Chicago, and owned the first grain elevator in Toledo.

In 1865 when Alvah was 74, he and Anna moved to New York City to be closer to their two daughters who also lived in New York City. They owned a home at 13 East 12th St.

In 1866, Alvah took a trip out west with his youngest son, James in a spring wagon over rough roads, “without any apparent fatigue.” (James is my GG Grandfather and grandfather of Elise Pinkerton, born 1904, see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.)

Anna Buckingham died of pneumonia on September 23, 1867, and her remains were brought back to Ohio. Alvah Buckingham died 11 days later, on October 4, 1867.

In 1639, Alvah Buckingham’s Puritan ancestors settled the farthest most reaches of America – Milford, Connecticut. Alvah was descended from immigrant ancestor, Thomas Buckingham, born in Minsden, Herts, England. Alvah’s father, Ebenezer Buckingham, fought in the Revolutionary War.

My grandfather, Sherwood Pinkerton Jr. later to be president of the family business, The Pinkerton Tobacco Company in Toledo, Ohio, is sitting in lower right corner. His mother, Julia Buckingham Pinkerton is standing behind him, next to her father, James Buckingham.  James’ wife, Jane Wills Buckingham is in the center. The room they are in is the front right side of the 405 Moxahala Avenue house, shown above. Photo circa 1905.
Sherwood Pinkerton with the paintings of his great grandparents, in his Central Avenue apartment in Toledo, November 1979, six weeks before he passed away.
Paintings of Anna and Alvah Buckingham, inherited by my mother, were donated to the Zanesville Art Institute in 1980. The museum gave them to the Pioneer and Historical Society of Muskingham County. The paintings now hang in the Increase Mathews house in Putnam, owned by the historical society. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu
Increase Mathews house in Putnam, where the portraits of Alvah and Anna Buckingham hang. 

Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu

The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress

I recently found these photos in my inherited family albums. The first one, from 1908, is of my grandfather’s only sister, Elise. I never knew anything about her, but learned that she died at age 4 of typhoid fever, the year this photo was taken. The second photo is my Aunt Elise in 1925. I realized that she was named after this little girl. The third is my Aunt Julia in 1933, who was named after my grandfather’s mother, Julia Buckingham Pinkerton.

About 20 years ago, when my daughter was five, Aunt Elise gave me the dress. It wasn’t in any condition to put on my daughter. I didn’t know the story of the dress, but it seemed spooky. I kept it in a drawer, wrapped in tissue paper. I took it out last week when I discovered these photos.

Imbued with the mystery of the child who died in 1908 and my aunts who wore the dress for formal portraits by the famous studios of Bachrach in 1925 and CL Lewis in 1933, it is disintegrating at the sleeves, having been hand-patched in various places apparently long ago.

There was a lump in the fabric, something in the pocket — I was a little afraid to see what it was! I pulled it out, and the message from my female ancestors, going all the way back to my great grandmother Julia Buckingham Pinkerton, who probably sewed it, couldn’t have been sweeter. It was a century-old hand-crocheted hankie with a girl with a bow in her hair and bounce in her step, and the words, Tuesday’s child is full of grace.