Letters From The War: Chapter One
From My Teaching Days
Most of my years teaching were spent passing along my knowledge about history, and in particular U.S. History. I think it’s important to know who we are as a people, and history helps in that pursuit.
About two years into my teaching career I read a marvelous writer, Bruce Catton, a Pulitzer-winner for his work writing historical fiction about the Civil War. It was a revelation to me, and it was the beginning of my fascination with the Civil War . . . and with historical fiction.
It is for that reason that I dedicate this series to Bruce Catton. He has passed on now, but hopefully he is still able to appreciate it.
And I dedicate it to all of us still living. May we one day learn the lessons of the past before it is too late! There is always hope as long as there are men, and women, who wish for peace.
In the Beginning
July 15, 1861
My Dearest Julia,
Words cannot properly capture the wonder of it all here in our nation’s capitol. For hundreds of yards in every direction the white tents stand, row after row, the sun reflecting off of them, at times creating a glare too great for my eyes.
My heart swells at the thought of serving my country. Although I desperately miss you, our son, and our farm in Pennsylvania, this is where I need to be at this time. My country needs me, and I am determined to answer the call of freedom and help put down this insurrection.
Camp life is not romantic, Julia. The authors who wrote of long-ago wars, the majesty of flags waving and men marching, failed to adequately describe the monotony and physical exertion of twelve, fourteen hour days filled with drill. We march in formation, we take target practice, we practice maneuvers, and then we do it all again, and again, and again. Then, as our bodies scream for respite, we collapse on the ground outside our tents, eat a meal of salted pork and beans, and endure hours of the foul stench associated with tens-of-thousands of men in close proximity. No, my darling, camp life is not romantic.
Still, the generals give us a sense of purpose, and it is generally assumed that this war will not last long. There is enemy movement outside of Washington, and any day now we will be called upon to march west from here, meet the enemy, and once and for all end this foolishness. And then, Julia, perhaps within a month, I will return to you, to our son, and we can once again live the lives we once envisioned.
Do not worry about me, Julia. I am a small part of the finest army in the world, and the Rebels are a ragtag group, poorly armed and poorly prepared. I am surrounded by comrades I trust, and I am certain the first large battle will be the last for all of us.
July 18, 1861
My Dearest Julia,
Tomorrow we march! There is great excitement in the camp. The many hours of drill, and the deplorable conditions we have endured, will all end tomorrow as we go out to meet the enemy in the decisive battle. We are all bone weary of building fortifications around D.C., and we are itching for a fight. The city is alive with excitement. It is rumored that many of the citizens plan on making a social affair of it, packing meals and watching the great battle firsthand. Intelligence reports have the enemy somewhere near a creek called Bull Run, several miles to the west of Washington. We shall march proudly to the encounter and there we shall be victorious, for God is on our side and in His divine grace we shall see no harm.
I saw General Mead yesterday, riding by on his horse, inspecting the troops, his troops, the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. I was less than impressed with his stature on a horse, but he appeared confident and morale was high among the men after his brief visit. He does not look like a military man. I thought of him as being a teacher, perhaps, or a store clerk, rather than a leader of fighting men.
We are but enlisted men, and not privy to the grand plans. We only know we march in the morning and meet the enemy somewhere beyond the Potomac.
Say a prayer, dear Julia, and remember that I love you always.
Meanwhile, Over the Hills
July 20, 1861
Hannah my love,
It would be impossible for my words to adequately describe the excitement in camp this evening. Tomorrow we meet the enemy, or so it is believed, and with the blessings of the Almighty we will be victorious.
The men are all in good spirits and confident. How could we not be? General Jackson is as confident a man as I’ve ever seen, highly religious, and he is convinced that our soldiers are the equal of any on the North’s side. He told us this morning, before the march began, that he had a vision the night before, and in that vision he saw great legions of southerners thrashing men in blue, and angels cheered from above as righteousness prevailed. His vision can only mean one thing, dear Hannah, so please do not worry.
We are camped by a river called Bull Run. Nearby is Manassas Junction, and it is expected that the Yanks will approach us from the east. We do not know their numbers, but we do know our quest is from heaven above and all will be well after the last bullet is fired on this battlefield.
I suspect I will be home soon, Hannah. The green hills of Kentucky call to me, and I am eager to return home and to your loving arms. Give our daughter a kiss for me, and please tell her that her father loves her mightily. Ask old man Grady to help with the milking if you are unable. He will be glad to lend a hand until I return.
May the glory of God be with us tomorrow! We’ll whoop those northern boys and then return home where we belong.
Leading up to . . .
In April of 1861, the Civil War had begun with the Battle of Fort Sumter.
Three months passed without any major military encounters between North and South. During that time, both sides organized and coordinated, rapidly, and frantically, preparing for the inevitable grand battle which, they believed, would end it all.
The public clamored for action and finally in July, 1861, the North struck out from Washington D.C., intent on marching toward the Confederate capitol of Richmond.
In their way were 18,000 Southern troops determined to ruin their plan.
The First Battle of Bull Run or, if you prefer, the Battle of Manassas, would be fought on July 21, 1861.
It was a bloodbath and yet, compared to what happened later on in the war, it was a mere skirmish. Over the span of four years, approximately 700,000 U.S. citizens died. Brother versus brother, neighbor versus neighbor, one continual bloodbath which cost us all dearly, even today, one-hundred and sixty-two years later.
Join me next week as we learn more about the Civil War through the words of those who fought it.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)