Letters From The War: Chapter Four
1862 Was the Year Things Became Real
It was a summer bathed in blood. One look at the historical timeline will tell you that, day after day of conflict, some skirmishes, some major battles, all a toll on the average soldier and the nation.
The chapters of this story are told with an eye on the eastern seaboard and the ongoing struggle between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. There were, of course, other struggles, along the Gulf Coast, up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio River Valleys, each day adding to the body count; each day adding to the misery.
September 1 Near Washngton D.c.
September 1, 1862
My Dearest Julia,
Never let anyone tell you that war is about nations, or political theories, or philosophies. War is nothing more than man killing man. I do not know what Mister Lincoln is thinking at this moment, nor do I care. I do not know what our generals are planning, nor do I care. My only concern, the only thing which allows me one moment of sanity, is protecting myself and the men I fight with. Things like freedom, states’ rights, slavery, those are issues debated in political arenas and argued by old men playing checkers on front porches. For us, the soldiers, the only reality is staying alive. Our flag is tattered, as are we.
Gaines Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Cedar Mountain, the locations change daily but the killing remains the same. I cannot shield you from the ugly truth, Julia. Without a doubt, by now, you have heard the reports. This war is gruesome. We march and we fight, and we do it daily. I have seen men fall asleep while marching in the middle of the night, disturbing sounds from the ever-present woods echoing in their dreams, as their feet automatically move forward.
Today we march back to Washington after two months “visiting” the southern territory, after two days on a revisited battlefield, Bull Run, where we once again lost in battle, where we once again were pushed to the limits of our very limited military skills. Our leadership is in disarray, we are bloodied and battered, and much in need of time to lick our considerable wounds.
I shall write once we reach the capitol. Until then, I remain yours always.
September 1, 1862
I will say this about General Lee: the man does not know how to yell “Uncle!” He apparently is not aware, or he simply does not care, that he is outnumbered in every possible way. He just keeps ordering attacks, forced marching in the middle of the night, and more attacks. The loss of life is staggering. Despite that, our hopes have never been higher as once again we have the Yankees on the run. Heaven help us if the North ever puts a capable military man in charge of its sizeable force. I fear, if that day ever arrives, we will surely lose this war.
Despite our recent successes, my darling, we are not doing well. I wish so to shield you from the truth but surely by now you know anyway. Our clothes are mere rags upon our bodies. Our meals are infested with rodents and bugs. More men die daily from infections and diseases than from Yankee bullets, our field doctors resembling meat butchers more than men of medicine.
We have once again been victorious at Bull Run and now we are marching towards Maryland. What the purpose is we may never know, but Bobby Lee is determined to press forward into the North.
I wish, badly, to tell you that I am fighting for our freedom, Hannah, but in truth I am simply trying to stay alive long enough to once again see your face. That is the reality of war for any soldier, to simply stay alive until the madness ends.
May God bless you, Hannah, and may God bless our cause, whatever that might be
October 1, 1862 Somewhere in Virginia
October 1, 1862
My Dearest Julia,
We are slowly following Lee and his army into Virginia after defeating him in Maryland along a small creek named Antietam.
Words fail me. I say we defeated Lee, and I have no doubt the newspapers will call it a Union victory, since they retreated first, but that is a hard truth to see from our camp. Over twenty-two thousand men died along that small creek. Another sixteen-thousand were wounded. A small creek in the middle of nowhere, with no more importance than one flea on one hound, and the ground was littered with the dead and dying.
And for what? For a political claim of victory? From where I sit, on this stump, in the middle of endless forest, I see no victories. All I see is blood. All I hear is misery. All I want is one night when the nightmares do not overcome my sleep. Instead we will march tomorrow, and we will march the next day, and we will all try to keep the nightmares at bay, try to stay alive, and one day return home to our loved ones.
Desertions are rising in number. Julie, although I strongly sympathize, I cannot allow myself to desert. My friends, to my left and right, need me, and I need them. This is my reality. This is my truth. The life I once knew no longer exists. I do not know of a future beyond this evening.
October 1, 1862
My Darling Hannah,
We are being pursued south through Virginia. There is no end to it.
I do not know who won at Sharpsburg, along that small creek Antietam. In truth I do not care about such matters. I simply want to return home to your loving arms.
Would any good be served by telling you of the suffering? I think not. The newspapers will tell you all you need to know, my darling. I am reasonably well. I was hit by flying debris when a shell exploded near me, but it was not worthy of a visit to the hospital tent and for that I am grateful. Those butchers kill more men than they save. My arm is not permanently affected by the wound and it is already showing signs of healing so please, do not fret over such things. As long as you receive letters from me, I remain healthy and well.
Is there an end to this? If there is, I do not see it. We are like two mongrel dogs locked in a forever grip of struggle, neither one willing to let go of the prized stick. One drags the other in one direction, and the next day the roles are reversed. There are no advantages or disadvantages large enough to make a difference, and as long as there are sufficient numbers of men to call an army, this fight will continue.
I will tell you, only, that I wish to lay down my weapon and just quit. I can see no sense to this any longer. But I will remain, for I owe it to my friends, and they owe the same to me.
The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the first significant victory for the North, and led directly to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863. It also assured that the British would not formally recognize the South as a separate nation and as such would remain neutral regarding the American struggle.
And the worst was yet to come!
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)