Letters From the War: Chapter Six
1863 Has Arrived
It was a brutal year of warfare, pitting antiquated military tactics against modern weapons. The result was all too predictable.
It was a year of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, of Vicksburg, Chickamagua and Chattanooga, and dozens of other “skirmishes” which added to the carnage.
It was a year of death across the country. During a three-day period in a small town in Pennsylvania, over 50,000 men lost their lives . . . imagine that much death littering the ground in such a small space . . . and still the lesson was not learned and the pain continued.
MAY 14, 1863
My Dear Julia,
We have once again left a battlefield feeling defeated. I am now of the belief that the great General Lee cannot be defeated. He appears to be invincible and incapable of making an error while in the heat of battle. How else can one explain his ability to win battles despite being terribly outnumbered?
The losses at Chancellorsville were horrendous for both sides. The Rebels lost their great commander, Stonewall Jackson. Rumor has it he died from friendly fire, a shot fired in the dark by a panicked sentry. Our own General Hooker, so confident going into battle, now keeps to himself and appears to all who see him to be a shell of the man he was before the battle began. What President Lincoln does from this point forward is anyone’s guess, but there are many calling for Hooker’s replacement. My God, Julia, if the President could find a commander to ably lead us into battle . . . but I’m not sure that man exists on our side. Does the equal of General Lee exist? I have my doubts.
And so we march once again, my love. We are now heading northward, once again leaving the area of Richmond for northern soil. We know not the plan. We only know to march, one foot in front of the other, always on guard, always wondering if our names will soon be added to the register of the dead, whether our time here will be marked by a small white cross on a green hill.
Forgive me, darling, for my dark mood. I lost several close friends in that last battle, and their absence from my life weighs heavily on me. I pray you are well and that one day soon I may join you once again on our farm.
May 14, 1863
We were victorious once again, my dearest. We are brimming with confidence despite the heavy loss of our brave soldiers at a crossroads named Chancellorsville and the devastating loss of General Jackson.
We will rest for a few days and then Bobby Lee will march us north into the enemy’s home, so confident he is that we cannot be defeated no matter where we fight. I suspect he is correct in that assessment, Hannah. The northern boys, brave though they are, are lacking in leadership, and that may well be their undoing.
My God, Hannah, the bravery I have seen, on both sides, acts of courage which defy proper explanation or description.
It is hard to fathom, the peacefulness of camp on this day, a mere seven days after such a horrible scene. The sun rises, as it always does, on this pastoral setting, trees fully in bloom, the campfire smoke drifting slowly upwards towards a blue sky, birds singing, men laughing, while three miles away bodies rot under that same sun, in sight of those same birds, the sounds of camp laughter unable to reach that scene of carnage.
Supplies are no longer reaching us in great numbers. Our uniforms are in tatters, but food is plentiful in this “friendly” area with farmers giving us what we need. Once we march north I suspect we will have to live off the land and find provisions wherever they are available. I doubt the northern farmers will be so eager to feed our troops.
I send you my love, Hannah. Know that I am with you always.
The Turning Point, July 5, 1863
JULY 5, 1863
My Dearest Julia,
I wondered if I would ever be able to write that word to you, but sitting here in camp, two miles outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I am finally able to report on a positive outcome. For once we arrived at a battlefield before General Lee and his army, and we were able to prepare fortifications in advance of the enemy’s arrival.
I will never again doubt the bravery of the southern boys. Against overwhelming numbers they fought like men possessed. Three times I saw them fall into formation and march across a mile of open ground into the teeth of an artillery attack. They fell like wheat to the scythe and yet they continued to advance. There was a peach orchard, Julia, so littered with the dead that a man could have walked across that orchard stepping on the bodies of southern boys and never once touching the ground.
I do not know what the press will write concerning that battle, Julia, but what they should write about is the determination of the men and their willingness to follow orders despite the near-certainty of death. In truth, Julia, I do not know how I have survived this long. There but for the grace of God, my love. Defending one hill I had men on both sides of me fall to the bullets and yet I was untouched. The whistling and explosion of shells so close as to render me temporarily deaf and yet not one fragment struck me. I can only consider it a miracle, and I am left to wonder what God’s plan is for me, for Him to have spared me injury thus far.
It is rumored that over 50,000 bodies remain in and around the town of Gettysburg. I suspect that number is accurate.
We are now slowly following the Rebels back into southern territory. I suspect, after such horrible losses, General Lee will not be eager to return to the north anytime soon. I do not know how much longer this war will last, Julia, but I sense a turning point at Gettysburg. I hope that sense is correct.
My Dearest Hannah,
There is great misery in our camp today, my darling. In a town named Gettysburg we suffered horribly, and now word has reached us that the southern fortress of Vicksburg has fallen as well. The Southern Cause has felt the lash of the whip for sure.
I do not know what the historians of the future will say about Gettysburg, but for those of us who answered the call of General Pickett and rushed across a mile of open ground into the teeth of the Yankee guns, Gettysburg will always be associated with the word insanity. There was no hope of achieving our objective, the taking of that distant hill, and yet we were called upon three times to march forward. In truth, Hannah, I do not know why I was spared while so many around me fell. It can only be the grace of God, Hannah. He was with me on that day.
A friend saw General Lee weeping as we retreated, and well he should lest he become too fond of this exercise in pain.
I am weary, my love, and must sleep while the opportunity is given me. You remain in my heart with each step I take.
The Inevitable Begins
The victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were not only important from a military standpoint for the North, but they were also an important morale boost. Still, the war would grind on for almost another two years.
A new leader was emerging out west, along the Mississippi River, a man unafraid to fight, a man who respected General Lee greatly but was not in awe of him. Samuel’s wish for an able leader was about to happen as a short, rumpled man by the name of Ulysses S. Grant slowly and methodically took control of that great river.
And President Lincoln noticed!
Inevitable? The cards were stacked against the South from the very beginning. The industrial might of the North and sheer overwhelming number of soldiers, a seemingly endless supply of soldiers, would be too much for the South to overcome. All they needed was a military leader who understood that, and in Grant they found that leader.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)