One Man’s War

     Computer difficulties yesterday kept me out of my picture files, so I could not prepare historical tidbits regarding the images our ancestors mailed to each other.    But the blog must go on.  So I have torn a piece out of one of my much applauded lecture series.  (These are lectures which are applauded because something always prevents me from actually delivering them.  The world may NEVER hear my work on Victorian Applications of New Communications Technology.)

     This excerpt comes from the story of Dave, a Civil War soldier about whom I did some research in the days before the Interwebs, when I had to beg a ride to a couple of different libraries where his story could be found.  Dave was inspired to a military career by the start of the Civil War.  Rejected on his first attempt to enlist (the Army simply wasn’t ready for the hundreds of thousands of enlistees, having used up its stock of weapons and unforms in the first few weeks) he was inspired to go out and recruit 99 other men, who could form their own company and fight together as a unit (the Army allowed that in those days.)  He was elected a Lieutenant by the company and went through training.  In their first major encounter with the enemy, Dave was wounded just badly enough to get him sent to an Army hospital while his company went on without him.  We will pick up his story at that point.

     His bad luck did not inspire Dave to say “Well, so that’s war.  I guess I’ve my share.”  No, he was one of those young men who tells the coach, “Hey, I’m okay!  Put me in!  Come on!  Look, I’m fine!”  At length, tired of his nagging, the Army doctors released him to rejoin Company C.

     By the time he caught up with them, however, there was no Company C to rejoin.  The laughter of the gods of war, the Hand of God, or the Fickle Finger of Fate had decreed that he should try to rejoin his buddies on the evening of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh.  This encounter had set up early on to be a catastrophe for the Union.  Confederate forces would have swept through unhindered had not several Union companies taken up a position in a roadway sunk below the surrounding countryside.  Hunkering here, they kept up such a withering barrage of gunfire that the spot is known to this day as The Hornet’s Nest.  The Confederate advance halted as every gun, large and small, was directed toward the men in the Hornet’s Nest.  You can start a nice fight at any gathering of Civil War experts by asking whether the Union troops finally had to withdraw because of the heavy guns pointed at them by the Southern troops, or because they just ran out of bullets.

     One company was able to make it back to Union lines.  The rest were caught in a swarm of Confederate soldiers, and except for a few men, were killed or captured.  Dave’s Company C was among those.  When he arrived in the camp, only eight of the men he had recruited were there to welcome him back.

     He reported to his commanding officer, who seemed remarkably glad to see him, and took him to see the next officer above him on staff, who was also glad to see Dave.  Any old soldier will tell you all this enthusiasm is a cause for great suspicion.  He may have been hauled all the way to the tent of the general commanding the Northern troops.

     Every textbook Ulysses S. Grant had ever seen on tactics said that at this point in a battle, the general in his position should take advantage of the lull to get as far away from the enemy as possible.  Grant had decided instead to attack the Confederate forces at dawn, throwing everything he had at them.  The trouble was that everything he had wasn’;t quite ready.  There were eight men left out of Company C, and six men from another company, and twelve men from that company, and seven men from another…all fit and prepared to do battle.  But not a single one of their officers had made it into camp.  They could form a unit in the morning’s battle, but who was going to lead them?

     And who should come trotting into camp, fresh as a daisy from sick leave, but Lieutenant Dave?  At dawn, Captain Dave rode at the head of the Union brigade, a fancy name for a company of leftovers.  I could not find the Union Brigade mentioned in a discussion of the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, which means they didn’t capture the enemy general and they didn’t turn around and run away, either.  A bunch of guys from the Midwest, they simply went out and did their job, and the surprised Confederate troops pulled back.  Captain Dave continued to command the Union Brigade for a week or two, until another encounter with the enemy found him wounded again.

     One of the military technological breakthroughs at this time was a round lead shot which was rifled, that is, had a spiral groove cut into it.  Invented by a French inventor named Minie.  American troops, having no taste for foreign pronunciation, dubbed it the mini ball.  One of these caught Dave in the webbing between the big toe and the second toe, and came out just above the ankle bone on the opposite side of the foot.  He kept that spent bullet for the rest of his life, describing it at the time in a letter to his cousin “a more used-up mini ball you never saw.”

     They cut the foot off, of course.  There wasn’t time or technology for anything else.  And after active service amounting to perhaps a month, Captain Dave was sent home.

     In a well-run world, assuming there ARE wars in a well-run world, this would have been the end of Dave’s service.  But the war went on, and both sides, once embarrassed by the number of enlistees, started to suffer a lack of soldiers.  One expedient the military resorts to in such cases is to take able-bodied soldiers holding down desk jobs and send them to the front, giving administrative posts to men who could handle papers even if they couldn’t handle combat.  And captain Dave, barring the lack of a foot, had stayed in pretty good shape.

     So one day in 1864, Colonel Dave rode at the head of soldiers again, this time to assume command of a captured city on the border between north and south.  It had been a Confederate city, but was captured by the Union.  And then was recaptured by the Confederacy and re-recaptured by the Union.  It had changed hands so often and under violent circumstances that Colonel Dave, writing home, said it was “like a little piece of Hell.”  But its heart was still grey, as he learned when  he took his troops down the main street of town and was stopped by an old man who blocked their progress while giving them a lecture on how they weren’t wanted, and they would all die as soon as the Confederacy returned.

     Dave, I have not mentioned, was known for his hair trigger temper.  He was a nice fellow, the sort who would join a fight in a bar and knock you down four times and then help you back up and buy you a drink.  It was that initial explosion you had to watch out for.  But even if he’d had the sunniest temper in the world, he was in this city not only as a representative of the U.S. Army bur also of the U.S. Government, and he had orders not to take this kind of talk from an insurgent.  He had the man arrested and carted off in irons, and when he learned this was the richest man in town, and owner of the largest undamaged house in the district, he commandeered the man’s house as his headquarters, and gave the man’s family two hours to vacate.

     In the morning, he was setting up his office in the old man’s study when an orderly knocked at the door and said, “Begging the Colonel’s pardon, but there’s someone here wants to see you.”

     “Who is he?” Dave demanded.

     “Begging the Colonel’s pardon,” said the orderly, “But it’s not a he.  It’s a she.”

     Dave sighed.  “What does SHE want?”

     “Begging the Colonel’s pardon, but she says it’s a private matter for the Colonel’s ears alone.”

     “Well, stop begging the Colonel’s pardon and show her in!  But…stay within call.”

     He understood the orderly’s awkwardness when the man showed in the town’s equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara.  I have also not mentioned that Dave was a man with a keen eye for the ladies.  That eye told him that anything a man wanted was right here in one charming package.  Dave was engaged to be married, but his fiancée was three states away from town.  So he showed the lady to a seat and, after the orderly had stepped outside, inquired what business had brought her to brighten his office.

     The lady was all business.  Basically, she had fallen madly in love with the young Colonel and wanted to marry him.

     Dave had an eye for the ladies but he had a brain, too.  He asked her at what point during his short stay in town had caused her to fall madly in love with a stranger.

     She was completely businesslike about this as well.  She had simply adored the way he had handled her father in the street.

     Dave’s military brain recognized some problems with the layout of the engagement.  But, still charmed, he replied, kindly “You realize how difficult it would be, in a town so imbued with Confederate sympathy, to marry a Union officer.  You’d be hated by all your neighbors.”

     “It doesn’t matter,” she assured him, “As long as you are by my side.”

     Dave regrouped.  “I am an officer, and this is wartime.  At any moment I might be ordered to some new assignment, and, of course, I could not take you along.  This would leave you alone in a hostile town.”

     “That doesn’t matter either,” she told him.  “As long as I know you are fighting to return to me, my heart will be glad and full.”

     Being a gentleman was getting him nowhere.  He decided on a more brutal attack.  “Soldiers being what they are,” he told her, “I’m more likely to go through a fake marriage, make use of you while I’m here, and then go off without another thought.”

     “Well, that’s fine, too,” she told him.  “When can we start?”

     Dabe called the orderly to escort the lady out of his office and gave orders that she was not to be admitted again.  He wrote his cousin “This was not the easiest battle of the war for me.”

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